Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 by Rebecca Skloot
New York, Crown Publishing, 2010
366 pages    Nonfiction 
Would Henrietta Lacks have wanted her cancer cells donated for scientific discovery? We will never know because her cells were taken without her consent. Rebecca Skloot traces the amazing history of those cells in her marvelous book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. 

This is science writing at its best—science writing for the rest of us. Divided into three parts, Life, Death, and Immortality, Skloot tells the story of a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 in 1951 of a particularly virulent form of cervical cancer. She left behind several small children, including a baby daughter and a son who was born after her diagnosis. Because she was treated and died at Johns Hopkins hospital, one of the most important research hospitals in the United States, her cancer cells were taken to try to grow them for experimental purposes. For reasons that continue to be unknown, those cells grew in as powerful a manner in Petri dishes as they did inside Henrietta’s body. They were called HeLa (the first two letters of her first and last names). 

The cells have been used in every type of research, from cancer, to polio, to AIDS. They continue to be sold for research, although Johns Hopkins maintains to this day that their institution never made any money from their sale. One researcher is quoted as saying “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you disassociate your materials from the people they come from. But if you could get a sample from Henrietta’s body today and do DNA fingerprinting on it, her DNA would match the DNA in HeLa cells.” Henrietta’s cells “simply outlived and outgrew any other cells they encountered.”

Skloot tells the story of the cells, the scientists that developed them, their uses, and the destiny they took on. She also tells the story of the lives that were left behind when Henrietta Lacks died. For more than 10 years, Skloot was the friend and reporter of the lives of Henrietta’s husband, children, and grandchildren, especially her youngest daughter, Deborah. By telling their stories, she moves her book out of science reporting into the most empathetic form of human reporting. The story becomes engrossing and engaging, reading more like a novel or memoir than a science book. The New York Times reviewer says: “Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.” Skloot became passionate about learning about HeLa as a teenager in biology class, and that passion shows through on every page of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. 

There are several extremely moving parts. One researcher comments that when she saw Henrietta’s body on the autopsy table, she noticed that Henrietta’s toes had red nail polish on them. "When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she's a real person." The most moving passage for me came when Deborah and Skloot are traveling together doing research. Deborah gets extremely worked up trying to understand this complicated scientific history. She comes close to having a stroke during the course of one trip, and her cousin lays hands on her, praying for Deborah’s release from the burden of worry about her mother’s cells. He asks that God transfer the concern to Skloot, a person who understands it all.

The family’s confusion is palpable and understandably so. Who could figure out a dead relative who lives on in billions of cells world-wide? As one family member says, "Nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin’. That's where the mystery's at." Deborah frequently muses on the question that is on everyone’s mind. Someone’s making money off of Henrietta’s cells. It certainly isn’t the Lacks family. As Deborah says, "But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors? Don't make no sense" They are comforted by the thought that HeLa is Henrietta’s spiritual body and that without a doubt, “Henrietta has been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being.”

As the history of Henrietta Lacks, HeLa, and the Lacks family is recounted, important scientific and moral questions are pondered. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book and should be required reading for every student of biology or medicine. It is one of the finest examples of narrative nonfiction available.

A BBC documentary that first told the story of Henrietta Lacks to a wide audience:


Mac Campbell said...

Yep, I remember hearing about this book on the radio. The family were simple people and ended up getting quite superstitious about the whole process. And the the part about sewing packets of radium to her ovaries was really creepy. Reminds me a little of The Professor and the Madman - one of those books that is stranger than fiction.
-Mac Campbell

Belgie said...

This book made me happy, mad, angry, and above all, curious...I bought this book by accident, when my laptop keys stuck, and just like they say in the book, Henrietta has her way of ringing you in...This book invokes a lot of emotion, and allows you to breath a breath of stench air, outside the media/political bubble, and see what the Matrix of medicine really is. I'm telling everyone I know to read this book