History, Memoir, Nonfiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot


Once upon a time there was a story that needed to be told.  It is about something we all need to be aware of, yet few of us are aware.  It begins with cells and with a poor, Southern woman named Henrietta Lacks who died at age 30 and is buried in an unmarked grave.

But what it really goes back to is this question:  who do our bodies belong to?  Whether you believe in God, an afterlife, and souls (or not) when Science hits on a certain discovery it sometimes makes claims–or stakes claims–on things that can further research.  Does it have that right?

Henrietta was dying of cervical cancer and being treated at Johns Hopkins when her doctor took a sample of her cells and gave them to George Gey, a researcher at the hospital who was working on cell growth and duplication outside of the human body.  No patient consent was asked for or given.  No family consent was asked for or given.  After all, Henrietta was getting free medical care, and the hospital’s rationale was that, in exchange for that care, they could bypass asking for permission.  They had done it with other patients and this time was no different.

But Henrietta’s cells were different.  After multiple failures trying to duplicate cells artificially, George Guy was suddenly handed the scientific version of the goose that laid the golden egg.  Except in this case, there were billions of golden eggs, because Henrietta’s cells multiplied again and again…and again and again.

She died, unceremoniously, leaving 5 children and a husband behind, but her cells lived on, and live on to this day in labs around the world.  Renamed HeLa cells, their relentless fortitude in continuing to multiply has made them instrumental in some of medicine’s most important research.

Fast forward several decades when the author, Rebecca Skloot, a too-smart-for-her-own-good student who constantly challenged the conventional school system, was sitting in a science class at a local community college.  After teaching a brief lesson on the HeLa cells, the professor wrote Henrietta’s name on the blackboard.  A spark and questions began to emerge in Rebecca’s mind, as did a quest to find out more about this unsuspecting woman who had given so much.

There are some people who are born to write a certain book and tell a certain story.  Henrietta’s story was waiting for Rebecca Skloot to come along and pursue the multiple avenues required to do it justice.  What she didn’t know was that Henrietta’s children had been used, lied to, and taken advantage of so much over the years, that the last thing they wanted to do was trust a young white woman inquiring about their mother’s cells.  Just gaining their trust took years.  All they knew was that Johns Hopkins and many others had capitalized and profited off of them, and they had nothing.  They didn’t even have health insurance.

There is much, much more to this story, and what you will realize as you read is that the author’s and Henrietta’s children’s stories merge together during the decade of research it took to write this book.  There are parts that are difficult to read–both Henrietta and her children grew up with abuse, abandonment, and incredible poverty–a recipe for extreme hardship that affected generations of the Lacks family.

But the story also contains discovery, redemption, apologies, allegiance, ethics, and friendship. Henrietta, her children, the researchers, and the author all have their own journeys, and the lessons learned–for them and for the reader–are the kind that stay with you.

I highly recommend this book.  It will make you question and be grateful for many things.

9 stars out of 10

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