Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells-taken without her knowledge- became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons-as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet, Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia-a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo-to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family-past and present-is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family-especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences. (from book cover)

This book was recommended to me by Larissa about 2 years ago. Now that I have finally read it, I can’t believe it took me so long to pick it up. What a fascinating read. I do not read as many non-fiction books, being a huge fiction lover, but I do love to learn. I love books that make you think about things you never would have before, ones that have a human interest story, and I am a big fan of science. This book has all of these. I have not spent much time in a hospital or doctors office or had many tests done. The extent of my medical history is really getting teeth pulled (including my wisdom teeth) and blood tests. I’ve had a few x-rays, but otherwise, nothing. Not once did it occur to me that those items that were removed from my body (teeth, blood, even urine) could be sitting somewhere and could potentially be used for education or research. This idea does not particularly bother me because if it weren’t for medical research, my mother would not be alive today. I can understand why people would be upset, though, at the thought of pieces of themselves being used for education or research when they have not given consent. And that is exactly what happened in the case of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells.


I’m sitting here with my fingers on the keyboard and just not sure where to start. There is so much I want to say about this book. One, I think it is an important story. For many different reasons. It is important because Henrietta Lacks was not considered when doctors took her cells and used them for research. She was not asked for her consent, she was not told what was happening, and her family was never told my medical professionals that her cells were being used all over the world. Having said that, the HeLa cells have had an AMAZING impact on the world of science and research and without them we would probably not have many of the vaccinations, drugs, and solutions we have today. I’m sure all of our lives have been impacted by the use of HeLa cells in one way or another. Two, I think it is important that we understand that the Lacks family were not looking for compensation, they just wanted to know what was going on with Henrietta’s cells. They did not understand what cells were, they thought that Henrietta had been cloned and there could be numerous people around the world walking around with her face, and while they understood that the use of her cells had saved tons of lives, they did not understand HOW. And finally, I think it is important because we need to understand how necessary it is for researchers to have tissue samples, cells, etc. to use in order to rid the world of these horrendous diseases and sicknesses we all complain about. I think there need to be rules put in place (I do not know how it works in Canada, only what they have said in the book about the process in the US). Personally, I feel it is important for people to give their consent for their tissues to be used for education and research. I personally do not feel it is our call as to WHAT those tissues are used for, but I understand why some people would. 


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is such an incredible story and I really hope you will go out and read it. I felt for the Lacks family, especially Deborah, and could not imagine how they must have felt because they were not educated and did not understand the science behind the use of Henrietta’s cells. I thought it was really interesting to read all the scientific “stuff” (this had the nerdy side of me squealing with joy.) It was an easy-to-read story and one that SHOULD be read. I know that when I hear the word polio or cancer I will think of Henrietta Lacks. I think the situation should have been dealt with in a different way, but I will always be grateful that her cells were used and had the impact they did. Thank you, Henrietta Lacks. If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, please visit http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html. I give this book a 4.5/5.

Happy Reading!

Next Review: The Bridge by Jane Higgins

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