The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She was diagnosed and treated at Johns Hopkins hospital, the only hospital in her area that would treat black patients at that time. A Hopkins researcher was trying to grow a human cell line, and was requesting samples from a variety of patients. Lacks’ cervical cancer cells were the first cells that grew indefinitely, revolutionizing the field of in vitro research.
Lacks didn’t know the tissue sample was taken from her during treatment. She died nine months after being diagnosed. Her husband and children didn’t find out about the cells until years later, when Henrietta’s sons and daughter were asked for blood samples.
Although the first part of the book goes into a lot of detail about HeLa, the story’s focus is on the Lacks family. Despite the fact a business had been made of selling He La, the family never received a dime. They lived in poverty for decades. They became highly distrustful of the medical profession and anyone making inquiries about the cells. And from hearing this story, who can blame them? The researchers were not upfront with the Lackses, and the family was well aware of how blacks had been treated by the health care system. After reading what they had been through, I wouldn’t have trusted the doctors either.
Skloot writes a compelling narrative that balances the significance of He La with the human story of the family. Normally, I dislike when authors put themselves in narrative nonfiction. I consider it an ego trip on the part of the author. However for this book, I think it was essential. Skloot reached out to the Lackses and spent years earning their trust. Part of the story is the Lackses understanding and coming to terms with HeLa, and SKloot was instrumental in this process.
I’d recommend this book if your work involves tissue culture, or if you’re just interested in learning more about the field.