The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My daughter Claire goes to a wonderfully creative and nurturing school, where the administration and faculty are especially thoughtful as they work to bring important issues before the students and their families.

Which is how I came to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

At the beginning of the summer, the Head of School sent out a letter to the entire school family – faculty, rising freshmen, and high school students – and asked everyone (faculty, students, and parents) to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  This is not the type of book I would normally read.  As a former history major I generally run from books about science.  (I still remember my high school biology teacher grabbing my ears in class one day to demonstrate to my classmates how ear lobes differ from individual to individual.  I wasn’t in favor of involuntary testing on human beings then and I’m still not!)

But I’m so pleased we were “required” to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because this is a wonderful work of biography, history, science, and ethics all rolled up into a page-turning book.  The short synopsis:  In the 1950s a poor Southern tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks died of cancer after being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  Cells were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent and now – some 60 years later – those cells (known as HeLa for the first two letters of her first and last name) are still alive and being used for research around the world.  In fact, the cells have been grown so frequently that if you could pile all HeLa cells onto a scale they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons – as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.  Henrietta Lacks’ family didn’t find out about the existence of the cells until 20 years after the fact, and the knowledge had a life-changing impact on them.  Skloot weaves the story of HeLa, Henrietta Lacks, the Lacks family, and her own search into a well-told and well-crafted book.

Although I didn’t know it when I opened the book this fall (I have to admit, I didn’t meet the school’s September deadline), this is a work of history.  It is the story of the HeLa cells – and the flesh and blood people behind them.  Skloot spent a decade on the research and writing, and the complicated nature of the story shows why it took her 10 years to sort through the facts and the science and to weave a tale worth telling.

In mid September, Claire’s school held a round table discussion on the book with Michele Norris of NPR’s All Things Considered, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health at HHS Bruce Gellin, and molecular biologist Jonathan Brody.  All had ties to the school.  There was an engaging 90 minutes of discussion between the panelists and the members of the school community.  You find when you read the book of the multimillion dollar industries that have been built around HeLa, and yet the family is so poor they can’t afford the health care that Henrietta’s cells made possible.  The question of Skloot’s profiting off the Lacks family was even raised in the discussion, and I was glad to hear that she’d established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide scholarships to the descendents of Henrietta Lacks.

The discussion raised all the issues that the book explores:  the use of human tissue for research, informed consent, racial prejudice, scientific responsibility.  A New York Times review captured the success Skloot achieves:

In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.

The reviewer hits it on the head.  This is a deep, brave, and wonderful book.  It is worth your time.

More to come…

DJB

One Response

  1. I heard about this book today on NPR as we were driving back from NC. Amazing story and very fascinating even for non-science people like us Browns. Glad you wrote about it.

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