There are moments in scientific discovery that are undeniably important in modern medicine and research. Take Andrew Fleming, for example, who mistakenly discovered Penicillin in 1928. Dr. Fleming returned from a two week vacation to find mold contaminating one of his bacterial culture plates. But he also noticed that this mold prevented the growth of his bacteria – and thus was the advent of Penicillin. Unlike Fleming’s fairly innocuous discovery, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot captures the story of another major scientific discovery – this one with grave human consequences.
Published in 2010, this novel tells the story of a mother and poor Southern tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks. She passed away at a young age and, from the beginning, her doctors knew that there was something unusual about the cancer cells on her cervix. Henrietta’s cells – Hela cells – were taken without her knowledge and have become one of the most important tools in medicine. In fact, if you Google “HeLa cells,” your search will yield 30,000,000+ hits. Why is it then that few have heard of their namesake?
HeLa cells are still alive today even though she died nearly seventy years ago. These cells grow unusually fast, doubling their count in only 24 hours. They are also immortal – meaning they will divide again and again and again without dying off. This makes them ideal for large scale testing. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovering secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such precision that scientists know their every detail. Like mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot takes us from the cancer ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells. From Henrietta’s small hometown in Virginia to East Baltimore in the early 2000s where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her short life and immortal cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until nearly twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. Even though these cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry, her family never saw a portion of the profits. The story of the Lacks family is connected to the history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of ethics in medicine and research, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the course of a decade, Rebecca Skloot carefully researched and uncovered the story of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells. In that process, she becomes entangled in the lives of Henrietta’s family – especially her daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions:
Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t she afford health insurance?
In her words, Rebecca writes:
“The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is intimate, astonishingly broad in scope, and nearly impossible to put down.