Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Crown Publishing Group, copyright 2010
Trade paperback, 381 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400052189 

Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, was buried in an unmarked grave sixty years ago. Yet her cells - taken without her knowledge - became one of the most important tools in medical research. Known to science as HeLa, the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture are still alive today, and have been bought and sold by the millions. Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey from the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta's family struggles with her legacy.

My Thoughts: 
It's always a good feeling when you have the privilege of reading one excellent book right after another. With The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a selection for a face-to-face book club, I am continuing my winning ways.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot has written an intelligent, moving nonfiction narrative that tells the story of the Lacks family and the HeLa cells.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)  was a poor African American woman who died from cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Without her consent, cells were taken from her cancerous cervical tumor at the free "colored" ward. These cells were given to a researcher who cultured them and created an immortal cell line used for medical research. The cell lines, called HeLa cells, have not only helped in vital medical research they have also made billions of dollars for the medical research industry.

Henrietta's family, however, knew nothing about this cell line and once they learned about the "immortal" and living cell line twenty years after Henrietta's death, they had a multitude of misunderstandings, misgivings, and apprehensions concerning what this meant. They also wondered why there was no compensation provided to the family for these unique cells that were taken from Henrietta. It is an ironic fact that while the HeLa cells have been credited with a myriad of medical advancements, Henrietta's descendents cannot afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a biography about the woman from whom this cell line originated but it also is about her family, racism, class, medical research and medical ethics. The narrative alternates between the personal story of the Lacks family and the scientific history of the HeLa cells. Scientific advancement and discovery is shown along side the darker side of unethical medical practices.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  has won several awards, including the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the 2010 Welcome Trust Book Prize, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Excellence in Science Writing, the 2011 Audie Award for Best Non-Fiction Audiobook, and a Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award.

As many readers know, I always appreciate it when authors include a few extras. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks includes a section on Where They Are Now, a note on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, an Afterword, a Cast of Characters, Timeline, Acknowledgments, Notes, an Index, and a Reading Group Guide.

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated. While writing this book, I conduced more than a thousand hours of interviews with family and friends of Henrietta Lacks, as well as with lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists who've written about the Lacks family. I also relied on extensive archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research, and he personal journals of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks. pg. xiii

The history of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells raises important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class; I've done my best to present them clearly within the narrative of the Lacks story, and I've included an afterword addressing the current legal and ethical debate surrounding tissue ownership and research. pg. xiv

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”
No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.
Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world.  I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body. pgs.1-2

Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.
“Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions—if not billions—of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice. pg. 3-4

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible. pg. 7

Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment. pg. 30


raidergirl3 said...

Oh yes, such a good book!
So well written, and it almost feels like it can't be real.

Lori L said...

Yes, it really is one of the best!

Audra said...

I so need to read this -- I don't often do non-fic, but this seems like the kind of book to make an exception for!

Jane said...

Emmy had to read this last semester for her com class, I think. I was going to read it when she was done, but before I knew it it was time to sell her books & buy new. I wanted to read it though! May have to see if I can get this through the library.

Lori L said...

Audra - this is a great nonfiction book for people who don't normally read nonfiction!

Jane - you have to read this book! I know your library would have it! If not, I could send you my copy after my book club discussion.

Tom Wiggins said...

My brother, who's studying Medical Science, is reading this book at the moment. I may have to borrow it off him when he's finished! Great review.

Laurie said...

This was our book club read last summer and it has so much to say about race and class in the US and the medical community. Great book.