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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

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In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and shortly before her death, doctors from John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took a sample of her cells to preserve and grow in culture. To their great excitement and surprise, these cells, which would come to be known as HeLa cells, did not die like all others had once removed from a living body, but continued to grow and multiply at an astonishing rate. This “immortality” allowed scientists to study things like the effects of radiation on human cells and the spread of viruses and cancers, and have been instrumental in the development of now-common vaccines and in vitro fertilization technologies, cloning, and gene mapping. They are one of the cell lines most commonly used for research around the world and are worth a fortune.

But the HeLa cell line is not only a story of medical successes and scientific innovation. The story of HeLa cells, the woman from whom they were taken, and the family she left behind, is also a story of racial exploitation and injustice. Henrietta, who could only find treatment in the “colored” ward of John Hopkins Hospital, had her cells taken for research without the knowledge or consent of herself or her family. Her husband and children only found out about the medical revolution that the discovery of her cells had inspired, and the multi-million dollar industry that had been built around them, more than twenty years later, when scientists studying the HeLa cell line came to do more research on them–again without their informed consent. On emotional and spiritual levels, they were mortified. On practical and economic levels, they were incensed. They wanted to know: What had really happened to Henrietta? And if she was so famous and important in the medical field, why couldn’t they, her family, afford health care?

Rebecca Skloot is a wonderful reporter, entirely accessible and engrossing. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she invites us to join her as she investigates Henrietta Lacks’s upbringing on an old tobacco farm ridden with rotting slave quarters, through sterilized labs and abandoned institutions for “the Negro insane”, and into the lives of Henrietta’s family, particularly her daughter Deborah’s. As we get to know Deborah and come to better understand her difficulties in dealing with Henrietta’s legacy, we are also provided with adequate historical context concerning medical experimentation performed on African Americans and the ongoing, problematic relationships between race, medical science, and bioethics. The Lacks’s story is fascinating and clearly told. Even if the subject matter does not initially spark your interest, I’d rethink passing up a chance to read this book. It had me hooked, and has a wide array of information and thought munchies to offer.

Written by Emily Jane

May 10, 2010 at 10:38 pm