In 1951, one woman’s unwilling contribution to medical science ushered in a new era of research and changed countless lives for the better. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot uncovers the woman who made such an impact on medicine, but went unknown for decades.
Until Skloot’s book revealed her, many only knew Henrietta Lacks as “HeLa”: the name given to the line of cells spawned from her tissue sample. Many textbooks erroneously called her Helen Lane or Helen Larson. Her story would open up new discussions about patients’ rights, decades after her cells helped improve and codify our ideas of patient consent.
Before Henrietta died of an aggressive cervical cancer in 1951, a doctor interested in growing cells in culture took a tissue sample from her tumor. The cell line he called HeLa would become the first to be successfully grown and transported, and samples sold for thousands. It helped put men on the moon, cure polio, and identify the link between HPV and cervical cancer. But it would not help Henrietta’s family.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is as much about Henrietta’s family as it is her cells. The Lackses spent decades without their wife and mother before they learned that her cells were still living, and they were not educated enough to understand what HeLa even was. The doctors they turned to for answers offered them dense medical texts, but no real explanations as to how or why HeLa had outlived Henrietta. Her children were understandably bitter, and believed that Johns Hopkins, where Henrietta received treatment, had somehow cheated them of their legacy.
In a way, it’s true. Although no one has successfully sued the medical establishment for compensation for research samples, several individuals have been able to market their cells themselves, and make a decent living. And in spite of the fact that Henrietta’s doctors did nothing wrong from a legal or ethical standpoint in 1951, the practice would violate informed consent regulations today.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an engaging, thoughtful read. Skloot covers the story of Henrietta and HeLa from all sides, without losing the attention of non-medical professionals in the process. If your book club is looking for a discussion-starter, this is the way to go.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.
Read all my reviews and follow me on Goodreads!
Image Credit: syslfrog