The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot, 2010)
I kept noticing this book in online reviews and the bookstore but I wasn’t sure if it would be too science laden for my reading tastes. I was delightfully surprised and this is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. In Oct. 1951, thirty one year old mother of five, Henrietta Lacks, died at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, MD from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. As was the custom of the time, researcher Dr. George Guy collected her tissue samples to try to replicate them in culture. Ms. Lack’s cancer cells began to rapidly multiply and divide which was uncommon; human cells usually died. Her cells were sent to other researchers around the world and were used in studies on polio, cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, DNA, and many more. Named HeLa for the initials of Henrietta Lacks, these cells are commonly used by scientists and are extremely well known. The book takes an ironic turn as we learn that her relatives never had knowledge of the use of Henrietta’s cells in research and were not compensated monetarily. Her children grew up poor and had hard lives after the death of their mother. Especially heart wrenching is the fate of Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s mentally retarded daughter. Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave in Clover, VA where her ancestors were once slaves. This is the first book by Rebecca Skloot and she spent ten years exploring the twists and turns of Henrietta’s story. Finally, this work will leave readers with questions regarding the use of our own tissue for medical studies and the ethics behind researching human subjects. I welcome comments and discussion on this fascinating story.
Henrietta Lacks and her husband, David.