If I’m going to invest my time in a book, I want to be entertained or inspired. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot did neither very well. But the New York Times bestseller did educate me. (Funny how non-fiction can do that to a person.)
I’m sure somewhere along the lines of my formal education I learned about HeLa cells. It sounded vaguely familiar when I started the book. Now, I know more than I ever needed/wanted to know about HeLa cells, and from whence they originated…an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks.
More interesting than the HeLa cells (which is the focus of most of the book), is the life of Henrietta Lacks. She was a spirited young girl living on a former slave plantation who had the cards stacked against her. She became pregnant as a teenager by her first cousin, whom she married. They lived in poverty, continued to have children, and eventually moved north for better job opportunities. As a young mother of five children, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer that spread rapidly through her body. She died in October 1951, and was buried in plain pine box in an unmarked grave near her childhood home.
While there was not much the doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital could do for her, they did take several biopsies of her cancer before and after her death. The biopsies were taken for use in research that eventually led to great discoveries in modern medicine.
The cancer cells taken in the biopsies, named HeLa (the first two letters of her first and last names), grew unlike any other specimens in the lab. Doctors and researchers were thrilled. They didn’t really care where the cells came from. The HeLa cells were used worldwide, including experiments that led to vaccines for polio, viruses, in vitro fertilization, cloning and, of course, cancer research. The HeLa cells continue to be used today. (And I might add…many people and organizations have made a boatload of money with the research that has originated from using the HeLa cells.)
Tragically, and unethically, these cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent or knowledge. Her family was unaware the HeLa cells existed until 20 years after her death...and that was only when reporters started asking questions about the origination of the cells. Ironically, her husband and children could not even afford modern healthcare that was developed using the HeLa cells. A significant portion of the book addresses Henrietta’s descendants’ dysfunctional lives, and the negative feelings and confusion they have in regards to the HeLa cells.
The book just kind of ends without resolution. Henrietta’s family did eventually receive some recognition for the HeLa cells’ contribution to science…but there was no monetary compensation. Not even free healthcare, except for the government’s standard programs for the poor and disabled.
Respectfully, the author has set up a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks at the henriettalacksfoundation.org.