The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot



I was absolutely blown away by this book.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not just a biography, but it is a history of science, a history of a family, a history of racism and most importantly it the history of the HeLa cells and the impact of these on the family from whom they originated from.  Rebecca Skloot took some 10 years to write this, and it is incredibly well written.  She is very sensitive to all of the issues that are surrounding the history of the HeLa cells, and Henrietta Lacks.  It was so beautifully written that I ended the book so overwhelmed, in tears at what Henrietta's family had gone through, at the compassion Rebecca had shown throughout the time she had spent with them to help them learn the true story.

The story begins in 1951 when a poor black woman from Clover, Henrietta Lacks, went to the John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore for something that she is concerned about (but didn't tell anyone what it was).  She was right to be concerned as it turns out to be cervical cancer.  The practice back then was for the scientists to use whatever cells they could, whatever tissues they could lay their hands on to try to learn more about the human cells, cancer, treatments, illnesses, etc.  So, George Gey and his little team  set about putting her cancer cells into culture and seeing what would happen.  They didn't think that much would happen as most cells to date had died.   These cells kept living and kept reproducing, over and over and over again.

The problems with this whole scientific practice was that they generally focussed taking from the black people, or performing medical testing on black people, and all without asking.  It wasn't considered necessary.  It also wasn't considered necessary to let the family know that tissues had been taken and what they were used for.  The tissue wasn't necessarily thought of as being associated with a person, they were just tissue.

Mary, who worked with George, told Rebecca  later that it wasn't until she saw the red nailpolish on Henrietta's toes that she '..nearly fainted. I thought, "Oh jeez, she's a real person."'

Henrietta, a young mother of 5 children with one daughter in home for the insane, died from a very aggressive form of cervical cancer.  Her family moved on, well, the children were too young to know, and her husband, Day, knowing not what else to do, moved on.

Rebecca, after stumbling on the very important HeLa cells in high school, then goes on to spend years researching to find who is the person behind the cells that became the immortal cells, HeLa.  This person is Henrietta Lacks, a fact which is known in the science word, however, in the Lacks family, their understanding of the immortality of the cells is confusing, how the world got to have the cells, a part of their mother, is beyond them and why people are getting to make money out of their mother's cells when they are dirt poor and uneducated, unable to get their own medical treatment is infuriating.

Rebecca has to work through many hurdles, calm many family members, educate the children of Henrietta, Deborah, Lawrence, Zakariyya (born Joseph) and Sonny (who are old enough to be her mother) (Elsie died), track down the white land-owning relatives from whom the Lacks family takes its name and spend many, many hours trawling through medical files to get to the bottom of it all.  Through it, the family learns who their mother, grandmother, cousin, sister and Aunt are, and relations between all begin to calm down.  The world slowly begins to learn the truth behind the most important cells in medical.

It is a fantastic exploration of the ethics of medical science as it covers such an extensive period of time (from the 1950's right through to the present time).  Rebecca puts the human, the person back into the centre of the picture of science, to ensure that we don't forget that consent, asking is so important.

There are many gruelling finds along the way, many that have been righted.  Science has come a long, long way. Now I know that Henrietta Lacks has been a very big part of it.

I give this book all 5 stars as it truly deserves the lot.

There is now The Henrietta Lack Foundation to help educate & provide health care to those who really need it.

If you want to read about the Lacks Family and they have a beautiful picture of their mother's cells in fluorescent as well as her all dressed up.  The cell picture may be the one that Sonny was given when he first saw the picture of what the cells looked like.


xx Meg

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the first half of the book. It was informative and educational. The second half - not so much. It took a bad turn with the introduction of Deborah and their trip together. The author depicted her as a woman who has the mind of a hyperactive 5 year old with ADD. "Oh my god. . . . I did this to her?" Maybe. Maybe not. The book went from the scientific and factual to the land of superstition and sensationalism I was left with the impression the book was a collage of facts and embellished observations. It's a good idea to leave your readers for a desire for more. I was left with a desire for less.

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    1. It's a shame that you felt that. I just sucked it all in! Maybe I was hungry for the knowledge and felt like I was learning about the science and the family at the same time. To me it felt like such a deeply well researched book. I think that it would have taken a heap of discipline to work out what to leave out rather than what to put in!

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