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. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? 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.
Summary from book, cover photo from indiebound.org
My Review: Chances are you have heard of Hela cells. They make regular appearances in articles and on news channels as scientists use them in research to discover how human cells react to various toxins and come up with new medications and vaccinations from studying them. But not much has been said about where these cells originated from. This book takes us behind the scenes of Hela cells back to the woman whose body they were cut from more than fifty years ago - Henrietta Lacks.
This book is more than a scientific study on Hela cells. It's a touching story of the Lacks family - a mother who died of cancer too early leaving her young children and husband behind. It's about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose body passed on but whose cells not only still live but continue to reproduce at astonishing rates.
This book is perfectly laid out to create a beautiful, yet educational story. It contains some interesting information on chromosome mapping, cell reproduction, and cell research in general. The information is provided mostly in layman’s terms making it easy to understand and read. At the same time it brings light onto the woman who was Henrietta Lacks from her childhood to beyond her death with a detailed look inside the lives of her children. The author has done an amazing job of reporting as a neutral party (for the most part) and yet humanizing the Lackes. There were a few parts toward the middle that felt a bit over dramatized. Yet there is no doubt that Henrietta's children suffered greatly, especially her daughter, Deborah. Their torment is adequately portrayed.
This book will leave the reader puzzled with feelings on the equity of tissue ownership. Parts produce outrage toward the abuse of power by the medical profession, Yet where would we be without the medical advancements led to by Hela? What a miraculous legacy Henrietta left behind. This would certainly make for an excellent book club discussion with some warmer moments.
My Rating: 4 Stars
To Sum it Up: So much more than a scientific article yet so much more than a memoir, this is a book that begs to be read.