The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: The Woman Behind The HeLa Cells

At a time when it seems like everyone alive qualifies to write a memoir, and chick-lit books spawn sequels and spin-offs, it is a treat to discover a story that has been hidden for far too long, that needed to be told. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of a woman who involuntarily revolutionized modern medicine.

Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from Baltimore, died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Before she died, cells from her tumor were taken from her, later dubbed “HeLa” cells.

Any science student is familiar with HeLa cells, cells that reproduce at such a rapid rate they are considered “immortal.” Research on HeLa cells have been used to study and develop treatments for cancer, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s Disease, etc. According to the book, almost any cell culture lab in the world holds millions, if not billions, of HeLa cells.

But not until this book was much known about Henrietta Lacks and her family, who did not even know until decades later that her cells were being used. Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, says of her mother:

But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother’s cells done so much for
medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? People got rich off
my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a
dime. [sic]

For readers not scientifically-inclined (like myself), The Immortal Life is much more than a lesson in biology. In telling the story of the Lacks family from its inception, Skloot sheds light on what life was like for blacks, especially black women, in the first half of the twentieth century. Henrietta Lacks’ life was not easy, and the way her family was exploited by doctors and researchers at Johns Hopkins for decades (and still today) is devastating.

The book also explores how African-Americans were often used for experimentation at Johns Hopkins. A relative of Henrietta said growing up in Baltimore, parents would tell their children to stay on the steps of the house after dark or “Hopkins might get [them].”

The most touching part of the book is the second half, focusing on Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, Deborah. Deborah is the author’s closest link to the family, opening up her life as Skloot wins her trust. Though Deborah initially deeply distrusts Skloot and her research, as the Lacks family had been lied to many times regarding Henrietta’s cells, the two women forge a deep bond. Skloot helps Deborah learn about the mother she hardly knew. The pair also discover information about a long-lost handicapped sister, sent to a state hospital as a child.

Though it is heartbreaking to read of Lacks’ children growing up in abusive homes, being jailed, suffering in poverty as their mother’s cells made corporations profit all over the world, Skloot’s breaking down the fourth wall and detailing her journey with the Lacks family makes her book much more than the story of a woman science forgot.

10 replies on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: The Woman Behind The HeLa Cells”

No, definitely read it. Read. It. Read it like crazy. Like @Sneha, I had to take breaks but she does an excellent job of taking you back out to the science when you’re just ready to break from the stress of Henrietta’s family’s experience.
And frankly, we should all know this woman’s story, and the story of her family.
And as a writer, getting through this thing you think wow, this is the kind of book I want to write and then you say DAYUM. Rebecca Skloot sure sacrificed a part of her soul to do this. She deserves every accolade she earns from this.

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