Released in 2009, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks charts a remarkable history that is at once deeply personal and of global consequence. The book begins with a series of historical flashbacks to Henrietta’s life, as a black woman living in a small Virginia community in 1951 and finding herself diagnosed with cervical cancer. Skloot alternates these with chapters of her own journey of research decades later, as a journalist determined to learn about the donor of the HeLa (‘Hee-la’) cells used in biological research around the world.
These cells, which in the fifties were coded with the first two letters of the donor’s name, were taken for medical research during Henrietta Lacks’ cancer treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital. They proved unusually resilient and grew quickly in plentiful supply, making them ideal for research. Yet not only were these cells taken without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent, they went on to outlive her, eventually used in everything from the polio vaccine to experiments in zero gravity. Her family didn’t find out until decades after the fact, setting the stage for the ongoing legal and moral dispute over tissue donation.
|Deborah Lacks looking at her mother's cells for the first time, 2001|
As the Lacks family begin to learn about the HeLa cells, they’re confronted with varying notions of immortality. Deeply religious, they attempt to reconcile the Christian concept of an afterlife with the empirical immortality the cells’ ongoing replication has achieved. Henrietta’s doctors never gave her the opportunity to consent, but they also did not attempt to educate her about the biological research they conducted. Though Skloot is not religious, she clearly shows the way that faith is layered deeply into the lives of the Lacks – and how their 'faith' in doctors, combined with a lack of science education, put them at the mercy of a system they couldn't question. This brings home the need for scientific education more than ever, as the issue of consent in medical research becomes more and more pressing in an age of DNA testing and donor tissue banks.
|Author Rebecca Skloot|
Skloot emphasizes her fact-checking, providing a long list of sources as well as helpful references. She has also founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which seeks to give recognition to the Lacks family and others who “have made important contributions to scientific research without persoally benefiting from those contributions.”
Meticulously and passionately written, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks presents a history of scientific research centered around one of the people who has made much of it possible. Henrietta’s great legacy also lives in her children and grandchildren, carried forward in ways beyond just biology. In passing on her hopes, her dreams, and her desire to do good, Henrietta achieved a form of immortality for which many of us still strive.
– Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.