The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta LacksIn the same way we sometimes debate whether the story should be seen as an entirely separate entity to the writer, so too scientists perceive a sample of cell tissue as separate to the human body it was extracted from.

Except that it is not possible to extract a story from a writer’s imagination without their consent. 

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother in her early thirties when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that would quickly take her life. She was fortunate to live close to John Hopkins hospital, built in 1889 as a charity hospital for the sick and poor, to ensure equal access to medical care for all, no matter their race, status, income or any other characteristic that might have otherwise given cause to discriminate in many of the hospitals at the time.

Before undergoing treatment, one of the Doctors took a tissue sample of both her healthy cells and the cancerous cells, as he had been doing to most patients, in an effort to try to find cells that would continue to replicate without dying – searching for the elusive “immortal” cell. It had never been done successfully with human cells.

He succeeded and the cells became known the world over – as he gave them away freely – as HeLa cells, immortal human cells that never died and could be used over and over to test for cures to disease and to observe how cells react to numerous variables, furthering science in ways unimaginable previously.

‘In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal”. A striking example  is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumour removed from a woman called Henrietta Lacks.)’

Few paused to ask about the woman behind these cells, what was her story, how her family felt about the multi million dollar research industry that made great strides in science , yes, but also made entrepreneurial types wealthy in the process.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of the HeLa cells in 1988, she was 16-years-old, sitting in her biology class listening to a lecture on cell culture by her instructor Donald Defler. He described the many things that have been learned by being able to grow cells in culture, indicating that much we knew today was due to the proliferation of cells made available thanks to Henrietta Lacks.

‘HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years, ” Defler said.

Henrietta_LacksSkloot made Henrietta the subject of her research for 10 years in the creation of this thorough, respectful account of the life of Henrietta Lacks and her journey to uncover the events of the time within the context of what was the norm in her day.

In much of her location research, when she travelled to meet and interview people, she was accompanied by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, a passionate woman, unable to find peace in her own life, until she had helped bring her mother’s story to light.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia in August 1920, in a small shack overlooking a busy train depot, where freight cars constantly shunted to and fro. She lived there with her parents and 8 older siblings until 1924, when her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.

Her father lacked the patience for raising children, so took them all to his family in Clover, Virginia, where they farmed tobacco and split the children between those who could take them. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks and her nine-year-old-cousin Day, left there after his birth, by his mother.

‘A twelve year old cousin and midwife named Munchie delivered him, blue as a stormy sky and not breathing. A white doctor came to the home-house with his derby and walking stick, wrote “stillborn” on Day’s birth certificate, then drove his horse-drawn buggy back to town, leaving a cloud of red dust behind.’

Their life there, became one filled with chores, waking at 4 o’clock in the morning, feeding animals, tending the family garden and then off to the tobacco fields to work.

Skloot finds out about her childhood, her marriage to Day, the 10 years they were married and had their children and the diagnosis that she kept from everyone, until it became obvious she was going to die.

It is tragic, sad and yet also a brilliant and informative story and piece of scientific medical history that reads like a novel and brings our awareness to the many who unknowingly make sacrifices for the better of others and that always present aspect of commercial vultures, hovering in the wings, recognising an opportunity to profit.

It rightly reveals and celebrates the life of the little-known woman behind those cells, Henrietta Lacks, who died at a young age from a ravaging cervical cancer, her children’s struggle, the family’s history and all that is kept from them in the name of science.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was one of my Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015.

40 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

    • That was probably something outside their paradigm, but it is strange, they are curious to invent new cures and see reactions, but particularly when one cell culture acts in a way that none have ever done before, it is hard to believe that no-one in the scientific community pursued it. There is one young scientist who emerges in the process of this research, who does take a very humanist approach and provided the family with opportunities to learn and observe the cells, which is actually particularly healing for the daughter, who lost her mother at such a young age and for whom those cells took on life-like proportions. It’s really quite moving.

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    • It really is Jacqui, I like to find these kind of compelling non-fiction narratives and this one was a great read, well-researched and very readable given the subject, I think the human story is equally important and brings with it some important lessons, where too often science and humanity are kept at such a distance from each other.

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  1. I just loved this book. I thought it was amazing how one woman’s cells have altered the course of cancer treatments in the world, let alone the way she was treated as a black woman. I couldn’t believe it recently when some Americans tried to ban it from schools as subversive.

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    • Yes, I read about that, I believe it was one mother who forbade her teenage son from reading it, saying it was pornographic, he was given an alternative, but the rest of the class read it. Some people are uncomfortable with open discussion of cancers that affect parts of the body they don’t wish to acknowledge. It didn’t seem to have gained much traction, although just the sniff of a ‘ban’ often becomes a positive publicity tool. This book has already garnered many prizes and been acknowledged for the tremendous work that it is, and more to the point, there is nothing offensive inside it, except that which affects the rights of individuals who have tissue cultures extracted without their consent, there are some serious issues that still need to be addressed there.

      Personally, if one set of cells goes on to make such huge advances in science and makes a lot of people millions, I think there should be rights for the family to be acknowledged and compensated. Very few cells attain the kind of status HeLa cells reached, but it doesn’t seem right, in hindsight.

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  2. I’ve got a feeling this was a Richard & Judy read a few years back, because it popped up on quite a few book blogs at the time. I added it to my wishlist then and your review is a timely reminder to read it. I do love narrative non-fiction and this sounds like it slots into that genre nicely. What an amazing story to tell and research.

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  3. I thought this was a fascinating book, both from the scientific and human points of view. Skloot managed to combine both medical and family history in a accessible and humane fashion which was absolutely gripping. I’m not sure if she’s written anything else but your review’s prompted me to check that out.

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    • I wish more writers from the science and nature community wrote such engaging books, I really enjoyed Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind earlier in the year for the same reason, a scientist who could present her work in a way that appealed to the wider literary community, ironic in that the essay that started her literary career was rejected by her boss, but accepted by literary journal, The Atlantic Monthly.

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      • I’ll look that out, Thanks, Claire. Completely agree about the need for accessible writing on science. Those of us who are not scientifically literate need these important issues explained to us in a way we can understand.

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  4. Normally harrowing books are a struggle but they are important. More books should be written about those people who happen to become the centre of scientific breakthroughs. Certainly one I will be looking out for.

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    • This is just one of those books that everyone should read and be aware of, it’s a great read and an insightful one at that. Reading it, is in part, paying tribute to this woman who enabled so many great advances to be made in medical science, even though she didn’t live to have any idea of her legacy.

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  5. What pleases me most is that this is a book that just refuses to go away. Every so often it resurfaces and we have the discussion about the ethics of the issue all over again and I think that is great because the way in which this woman’s body was made use of, yes for great medical advancement, but also to line the pockets of other people, needs to be kept at the forefront of our minds as we move forward in medical research.

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    • That’s surely the sign of a great book Alex, one that keeps the conversation going, that becomes a reference and a guide for us to remember to ask questions and be aware of our rights. I think something ought to be done to protect people, who with hindsight made such significant contributions to science, her contribution was huge – and completely unacknowledged until Rebecca Skloot started this little literary revolution.

      We won’t forget HeLa, nor shoud we forget Henrietta Lacks.

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    • It’s a great read Janet, one that won’t be forgotten after reading, highly recommend. I’d had it in my sights for some time and so glad I’ve finally read it. Her story needed to be told and to be known by us all.

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  6. I read this in 2013 and it has stayed with me ever since – beautifully researched, easy to read and a fascinating topic. Your review brought it all back to me.

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  7. Skloot really does have a way of writing that brings you in. It read so much more like fiction than nonfiction and I appreciated that about her journalistic instincts.

    (Also I’ll be keeping an eye out for your response Two Serious Ladies. I don’t think it was the right time for me to read it, but it was an interesting read.)

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    • Thanks for coming back to see my post on Henrietta Lacks Geoff. I said yes to a readalong of Two Serious Ladies, without knowing anything about it, but thought why not, since I was asked, I’m just starting it and find Christina as a child interesting, she sounds a little like my daughter, maybe I ought to stop before finding out any more, others are saying it’s weird and I can imagine it’s going to be? Will see what it brings and whether the timing suits me at the moment too! Watch this space, the others are going to be posting reviews next Wednesday so I better get a move on and finish it, to have sufficient time to reflect on it!

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  8. I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised by this book. Skloot’s biggest achievement was marrying the subjective story of her experiences when researching, with the objective story of the history and science. It is not easy and could have been easily mishandled.

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