Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, science, biology, HeLa, cells, Lacks family, book review, Rebecca Skloot

It’s time to review October’s science read!

I’ve been waiting to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for a long time and am glad to say I’ve finally gotten round to it!

First up – who is Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American tobacco farmer who lived in Virginia in the late 1940s/early 1950s. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated at the John Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital which treated black patients in the area. During this time, unbeknownst to Henrietta, doctors took cell samples from her cervix and gave them to a cancer researcher named George Gey. Henrietta eventually passed away from cancer in 1951. Her cells, however, were a different story. At the time, cells being cultured in laboratories could only survive for a few days, but what Gey and his assistant, Mary Kubicek, found was Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa (the first syllables from her name), were not only surviving, but they were growing at a never-before-seen rate. The HeLa cells, they found, were continuing to divide and multiply without stopping – they were, in a sense, ‘immortal.’ This also made the HeLa cell line the perfect tool for medical research and experiments – in the years since, HeLa cells have been used to help create the polio vaccine, the cervical cancer vaccine, in cloning research, AIDS research, gene mapping and so much more.

But no one ever knew much about the woman behind the cells. In fact, when they did talk about her, they got her name wrong – she was called Helen Lane or Helen Larson. And her family, who continued to live in poverty in Virginia, never realized what was going on or that her cells had even been taken for research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is just as much a story about the Lacks family as it is about Henrietta’s immortal cells. In particular, her daughter, Deborah Lacks, is the heart and soul of the book. She was a warm, sweet, big-hearted woman who for a long time was bewildered at what exactly had happened to her mother and what scientists were doing with her mother’s cells.

One of the things that struck me most when reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was just how much research, time and effort Rebecca Skloot must have poured into this book. She also spent years reaching out to and meeting with the Lacks family, determined to win their trust and to tell their story, the story of a family who had no idea their mother’s cells had been taken by doctors and turned into a multibillion dollar medical industry while they languished in poverty with no access to health insurance, a family who could get no straight answers from doctors of what exactly had been done with Henrietta’s cells, who were besieged by con artists and journalists looking to make a quick buck out of their story till they had no idea who to trust. She also grew to come great friends with the Lackses, in particular Deborah, and created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to which a portion of the book’s profits are donated to help fund the Lacks family’s education and health costs.

Another thing I noticed while reading The Immortal Life was the number of strong, indomitable women that peopled the book – women like Henrietta herself, Bobbette Lacks (Henrietta’s future daughter-in-law), Deborah Lacks and Courtney Speed, a woman who was determined to have Henrietta Lacks honoured and acknowledged for her contribution to the world. They were all wonderful examples of resilience, determination and optimism in a world that often showed them little kindness or mercy.

The book also tackled issues such as the ethical issues around bioresearch, gene studies and the rights of medical patients. Here, Skloot cites the particularly disturbing Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the case of John Moore who fought a historic court battle over his rights to the cell lines created from samples of his spleen. among others. Though I loved the care and attention Skloot gave to the Lacks’ family (who deserved to have their story told with such thorough and loving care as Skloot gave them), I did wish Skloot had delved just a little bit more into the medical side of things and these ethical issues which she briefly touched on.

To sum up, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary story about a woman made immortal through her cells and the family which she loved and cared for so much. I’m so glad I’ve finally read this book and that I now know the story of Henrietta Lacks and her vastly significant contribution to the world, a story which everyone should get to know.

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