Reading Room

Henrietta Lack’s daughter Deborah once whispered to a vial of her mother’s cells: “you’re famous just nobody knows it.”

the immortal life of henrietta lacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot | Crown Publishing House

I am a huge fan of non-fiction because time and again I find that stories about people and events that really happened are harder to believe and far more amazing than stories that people invent. And truly, it is hard to imagine a better story than the one about Henrietta Lacks.

The facts alone are hard to believe — in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but pieces of the tumor that killed her — taken without her knowledge or consent — live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space.

Her cells reproduce infinitely in a lab and became the first immortal human cell line. Although other immortal lines have since been established, Lacks’s “HeLa” cells are the standard in labs around the world. Together they outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings and could circle the equator three times.

HeLa Cells Outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings
HeLa Cells Outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings

The cells from this one tumor gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry and become the foundation of modern science — leading to breakthroughs in polio vaccines, gene mapping, cloning and fertility, helping to discover how numerous viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things). Simply stated — the science end of this story is staggering — just completely mind boggling.

But what’s truly noteworthy about Rebecca Skloot’s book is that we also get the rest of the story — and an awakening to the fact that we cannot and should not forget the people who have helped to promote medical research that benefits so many people throughout the world.

Who was the person that came to be known only by her cells “HeLa?” How did she live? How did she die? Did her family know that she’d become, in some strange way, immortal, and how did that affect them? And so, what unfolds is not only a reporting work of art but also a very entertaining account of Henrietta Lacks, her ancestors, her cells and the scientists who grew them.

The book ultimately channels its journey of discovery though Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother, and never knew about HeLa cells and the contribution her mother made to medical research. It is in this part of the book where cutting edge medicine collides with dark truths like the fact that Henrietta’s family can’t afford health insurance to care for diseases their mother’s cells have helped to cure.

The story of Henrietta Lacks caused me to pause and consider the enormity of her contribution to science, to feel enormous sympathy for her daughter Deborah and to view the world of clinical research through an entirely new lense.

Read this book — I promise you’ll be moved and amazed.

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