Book #15: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot sounded like a very intriguing science nonfiction book when I first heard of it. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in the 1950s who died of cervical cancer. During her treatment, without her knowledge or consent, a doctor took a sample of her cervical cancer cells for research. These cells ended up multiplying and growing in a way never seen before, becoming the first immortal cell line, called HeLa – cells that still exist and are used by scientists today. Her cells helped develop the polio vaccine, and have been used in research on cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, and various viruses. I was very intrigued by the science of this book and surprised that I’d never heard of this very famous cell line (granted, my background is English not science). But the book was different than I expected. While it does give a broad overview of the scientific history of the HeLa cells, the main focus of the book is on Henrietta’s family, particularly her daughter Deborah, who was so young when her mother died she has no memories of her and knows nothing of the HeLa cell line until decades after the fact. The book tells the story of how the author, Skloot, hunts down and gets to know the Lacks family during her research into HeLa. Deborah is driven by a quest to know more about her mother and her immortal cells, and sees Skloot’s research as a way to finally get answers as well as set the record straight to the whole world about who her mother was. This seems more a work about family and identity, revolving around the circumstances of some questionable science practices and controversies. Skloot also ties in some big questions that are still being debated today in the courts about a person’s rights to discarded tissues and cells (essentially, we have none) and rights to profits made off of the commercialization of those samples (again, none). Though not what I expected, it was an interesting look into the life of this family and their difficulties over the years because of these cells, as well as educational about HeLa and cell culture research.

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