Release Date: February 2, 2010
In 1951, Tobacco Farmer Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. Before her death, cervical cells were harvested without her consent and became the first human cells to grow in a lab. They would grow an entire generation of new cells in a 24-hour period. Over the years those cells, known as HeLa to scientists, became a hot commodity in the scientific world standing at the forefront of some of the greatest medical breakthroughs, but Henrietta Lacks remained largely unknown. Unknown — until her daughter started looking to find out more about the mother she’d never known. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is her story.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is an important one. Her cells were harvested to make advancements in science and henceforward the health of humanity. Millions of dollars have been made from these cells generated from her cervical tissue and HeLa is big business and well known in the scientific world. There’s an imbalance in the world when HeLa is a well-known commodity in the scientific world and the children of the woman from whose tissue they grew are unable to afford health insurance. Science writer Rebecca Skloot connected with Lacks’s daughter, Deborah, in order to discover the story of a woman who died too young and who became important to a world who may not have otherwise known her.
In the first half of the book, Sklott explains the science and the politics involved with the subject as a poor woman of color with a deft hand. In the second half, she traces the sometimes tragic story of the five children that Lacks left behind. I am not a science person, having done what must be done in high school and college and never looked back, but I understood the clear way in which the author addressed the processes and principles involved. The sheer usefulness of the cells and their broad-reaching impact read like fiction. Sklott places herself as a searcher for the truth behind the woman from whom the cells came, which brings her into contact with the family.
Where the scientific part of the book was strong and interesting, the telling of the family’s story was prone to the sort of emotional hand-wringing one does not usually see in non-fiction. The children of Henrietta Lacks lived a hard life after the passing of their mother and Sklott connects with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. There are family pictures at the end of the book putting faces to the people we encounter on the preceding pages. Understandably, the Lacks children feel robbed and want compensation for the use of their mother’s tissue. Punctuating the sad tale is that the siblings have had numerous health challenges and lacked both the proper financial means and insurance to care for themselves. A cruel irony to the children of a woman who unwittingly did so much for the advancement of science.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a must read for people interested in the racial politics of the medical world in the 1050s, the science of genetic research and the question of ethics of personal rights vs. the greater good. Pick it up this Human Rights Day and find out more about the most famous unknown woman in scientific research.
Read an excerpt and buy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on