Book review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ by Rebecca Skloot
February 18, 2017
Few people hold the rare distinction of being both famous and unknown at the same time. These characteristics are held by one 20th-century woman who never lived to experience the paradoxical nature of the impact her existence had upon the world of science and medicine.
Born poor in the rural remnants of the Civil War South, Henrietta Lacks died young, the victim of a particularly virulent batch of cancer cells that refused to die as they consumed her body from the inside out. This gripping story is brought to life in Rebecca Skloot's best-selling book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," which is also the basis for an upcoming HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey.
More than history
The highly engaging and deeply moving book is more than a history lesson of a forgotten chapter of mid-20th-century science; it is also a tribute to the family at the impenetrable heart of the matter. The author is a pivotal part of the journey to unlock the secrets of the woman behind the "HeLa" cells that have gone on to change the course of modern medical research.
“Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.”Rebecca SklootAuthor “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”
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Skloot inserts herself into the narrative, and rightfully so, as her unrelenting commitment to tell the true tale of Henrietta Lacks went a long way in helping the overlooked and overburdened family find some much-needed recognition and peace.
Skloot first heard mention of the extraordinary nature of the HeLa cells in a high school biology lecture in 1988, and as she matriculated toward a science degree, she learned HeLa was everywhere: literally in every research lab around the world. The cells having contributed to the development of impactful advancements such as the polio vaccine, leaps in modern cancer treatments, helping make Dolly the sheep a reality and bringing hope to families longing for children. "Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta's cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse," Skloot writes.
But even as Skloot acknowledged Lacks' cells were well-studied, it became clear little to nothing was known about the woman — the black woman — who had unknowingly contributed them. This mysterious lack of information around the marvelous undying cells never quite left Skloot's mind, and she longed to someday learn the rest of the story, living with the idea of a book on the subject bouncing around in her mind.
Finally, after years of intervening life and failed attempts to learn about the source of the cells, Skloot managed to connect with Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks' children, and the encounter put the two women on a journey of shared discovery and set the stage for their unlikely friendship. Their bond is central to the perspective Skloot brings to the telling of Henrietta Lacks' story.
The book weaves back and forth in time, spiraling outward from the ground zero moment of Henrietta's death from cervical cancer, during the treatment of which tumor cells were taken without her consent and knowledge. At the time of her illness in 1951, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore was the last option for most patients like Lacks, thanks to its beginnings as a charity hospital. It was also one of the rare clinics that treated African Americans.
Johns Hopkins was deeply involved in research — partly because of its focus on minorities, most of whom were unable to pay for services rendered. Skloot shines a light on the controversial and disturbing practice which involved sample-taking from unknowing black patients, then viewed by medical staff as a form of reimbursement for medical treatment.
Skloot juxtaposes this reality experienced by many minorities against an even more unethical practice that occurred at the Tuskegee Institute in the 1930s, where black men suffering from syphilis were studied as they died painfully and without treatment. There is a bad history within the African American community when it came to medical care, and many are slow to trust, with good reason, Skloot maintains.
As Skloot weaves the stories of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants together, the main point of focus is on this gray area of mistrust and systemic abuse in which the family found itself. As HeLa cells began to multiply exponentially, the original physician who acquired and cultivated the cells sent them out into the world, well aware of the potential good they could contribute.
But once out of his hands, Pandora's box had been metaphorically opened and subsequent researchers began to grow their own HeLa cell offspring, choosing to sell them for profit and thereby giving rise to some of the large biomedical industries that dominate today's medical landscape.
a terrible secret
Of all this, most tragically, the Lacks family as unknown until 1973, well more than 20 years after the initial cells had been extracted from Henrietta Lacks. It was only through a passing conversation between one of the family members and an acquaintance who worked for the National Cancer Institute where two and two were put together, connecting HeLa to Henrietta — Lacks, the real human behind the extraordinary immortal cells.
Skloot paints a picture of a family overwhelmed by the terrible secret, as though all the good their mother's cells did for the world was countered by all the pain and suffering the family has had to endure; with poverty, familial abuse and an ironically persistent lack of health insurance always looming large in their lives.
The details of neglect the family suffered are heart-wrenching, and Skloot does not shy away from the ugly torments they endured. She also gives page time to the glorious phenomenon of Henrietta's miraculous cells, which have gone out into the world for more than a generation, a spiritual body and an angel according to Deborah, who is bent on doing good, even though good was not done unto her.
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