Have you every read a book that enlightened you about the past to such an alarming degree that you actually feel shame that you never knew about the events – even though there is no possible reason you could or should have known about it? I felt this way about this book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Without Henrietta Lacks, we would not have a very large percentage of modern medicines or procedures – including the vaccine for Polio or in-vitro fertilisation. But Henrietta Lacks was not an eminent scientist or researcher. She was a poor, uneducated black woman who died of aggressive cervical cancer in the 1950s.
Her cells are now infamously referred to as ‘HeLa’. They were the first immortal human cell line – meaning the cells continued to divide and grow in culture and could be used for medical experimentation in perpetuity. In other words, her cancerous cells are still alive today more than 60 years after her death. The cells form the backbone of nearly every significant piece of medical research since they were harvested. But these cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge by the university hospital that treated her. It wasn’t for decades, after her children grew up in poverty, that they discovered what was done and how much money was made by individual doctors and multinational corporations from these cells.
Through extensive interviews over a number of years, Skloot’s interactions with the Lacks family as they struggle to understand and reconcile their new knowledge of what happened to Henrietta weave a mesmerizing story. It is a moving and devastatingly readable account of Skloot’s journey to uncover the bald facts of Henrietta’s fate and the ongoing effect her story has had on her family. It is more than biography, history or an exploration of medical bioethics. It is an essential read.