I remember distinctly the day that I learned about HeLa cells. I was in college, taking a basic biology course taught by a professor who resembled Captain Kangaroo. I remember writing it down in my notebook: HeLa. When I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, I had no idea what it was about, and did not make the connection between the woman on the cover and the cells I had learned about in school.
Though many have heard of HeLa, not many have heard of Henrietta Lacks. The book is changing that, not just incidentally, because it happens to be about Henrietta and her amazing, cancerous cells, but intentionally, because Rebecca Skloot and the Lacks family want people to know the truth about those cells, at all cost.
Rebecca Skloot also remembers the day she learned about HeLa cells. She was “sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class” when her professor explained that the HeLa cells from Henrietta, the first ever able to live and grow infinitely and successfully outside of the human body, have been invaluable to science since their discovery in 1951. He also added, briefly at the end of class, that “she was a black woman.” Skloot couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more to the story, and spent the next decade curiously searching for the story behind the cells. Thus, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was born.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer from Clover, Virginia. She was a beautiful woman who married her first cousin, David Lacks, and mothered five of his children. Eventually she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and despite treatment (a terrible treatment with radium that made her very unwell), she passed away in 1951. During her hospitalization and after her death doctors at Hopkins took tissue samples from her body and tumors without asking for permission or telling her. From those samples, and due to Lacks’s unique cells, doctors and scientists created a cell culture capable of growing until it ran out of space.
Because not much is actually known about Henrietta any more, aside from what she looked like in a couple of pictures and a few memories here and there, along with her medical records from John’s Hopkins, the story doesn’t revolve so much around the woman, as it does around the scientific breakthroughs that her cells have led to, and her living family, especially Henrietta’s oldest living daughter, Deborah. Skloot’s treatment of the subject material is at once distanced and immensely involved. She has seemingly remained an objective reporter despite becoming rather involved with the Lacks family throughout the course of her research.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks answers most questions about Henrietta’s bodily and cellular life, as well as the lives of her loved ones. However, the ongoing discussion of whether the Lacks family is due money for all of the worldly good that the HeLa cells have done begs the question: Did any of the proceeds from book sales go to the Lacks family? The answer is yes. Rebecca Skloot has created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides financial assistance to low-income families of those whose contributions (with, but especially without, their knowledge) have helped to further scientific endeavors.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the late-March selection for Books and Bars and is available, among other places, at Magers & Quinn Booksellers.