"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," By Rebecca Skloot
Hardcover, 370 pages
Published February 2, 2010 by Crown Publishing Group
Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash
Henrietta Lacks lived an ordinary life. Poor, tobacco farmer, mother, African-American, she died at age 31 as a result of an invasive, metastasized vaginal cancer. Because of her situation, treatment for her cancer was ineffective as the cancer was too progressed to respond. Henrietta's final days were severely painful and she died while admitted at Johns Hopkins in 1951.
During her visits to the hospital, cells from her tumors were collected without her knowledge. The cells were shared between doctors in the teaching hospital and found to be unique: despite efforts to halt their growth, they continued to replicate. Descendants of Henrietta's cells are now used in a great number of biomedical research and testing. Her cells have even traveled into space.
While Henrietta's life ended in 1951, she continues to live on in the HeLa cell line.
This book is remarkable. Skloot has done an amazing job of looking at all the issues related to the life of Henrietta Lacks. Much of her storytelling is how she procured the information needed for this vast work, particularly her relationship with Lacks' daughter Deborah, who was very young when she lost her mother. Deborah and Skloot created a bond that is well-documented in this book.
I appreciated Skloot's tender dealings with the issues of race, women's rights, and poverty. Was Lacks' case a results of her minority and socioeconomic status?
It's also an interesting case study in human subjects research. With the various privacy restrictions in place today, hopefully this will never happen to anyone else. That is, a person's cells being taken and used without their permission. It was like a perfect storm for Henrietta: her sex, race, socioeconomic status, the decade in which she was ill. These things led to her subsequent immortality.
I highly recommend this book, especially as a discussion topic for a group, since there are so many facets to the story.