When I found out my book club had selected The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the book for our January meeting, I had never heard of it. I didn't know if it was fiction or non-fiction, and I didn't know who Henrietta Lacks was. I'm so glad I read this book. What an amazing and crazy story!
Henrietta Lacks was a real person. She was a black woman born in 1920 that grew up to be a rural tobacco farmer. She was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins and died that year in 1951. While she was treated there, a doctor took a tissue sample from her cervix without her permission. Ultimately, that tissue sample was cultured and grown into a cell line named HeLa, after the first two initials of her first and last name. It was the first cell line that was considered "immortal." Most cells die after 50 divisions, but HeLa does not. HeLa was used in developing the polio vaccine, was shot into outer space on the space shuttle, and blown up in an atomic bomb. HeLa samples exist all over the world today and are still used in research. Henrietta's children would not find out about the existence of HeLa until over 20 years later.
Author Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class when she was 16. Thus, her obsession with finding out what happened to Henrietta began. She spent over a decade researching HeLa and interviewing people for this book. She went to the town where Henrietta lived, she interviewed the doctors and other involved in the case, and she developed a personal relationship with the Lacks family. She even went so far as to travel with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, as she did research for the book. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks really takes a deep dive into the pain that the family endured and the ethical implications of what happened. Reading about the anxiety that Henrietta's daughter endured about her mother's cells being experimented on all over the world was heartbreaking. The family had such a roller coaster of emotions about it that Skloot often did not talk to them for months at a time during the process of writing the book.
Who do human tissue samples belong to? Until I read this book, I thought my cells and tissue belonged to me. According to the U.S. law, they do not. Once cells leave my body they are no longer mine. HeLa does not belong to the Lacks family and none of the profits that have been made from its sale or discoveries related to it do either. At the time of publication, a test tube of HeLa was available for sale for $167.
This book was a really eye opening story for me. Did this really happen in the United States? It did and the story continues to go on. This book explores the issues of race, class, and medical ethics using a novel-like narrative. The story is about science and medicine, but doesn't let us forget that HeLa isn't just a cell line. HeLa has a human face, and her name is Henrietta Lacks. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.