Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Why I Read It: The story seemed too interesting to pass up.

Summary: A reporter follows the story of the "immortal" HeLa cells back to the "donor's" family, then walks with them through their own journey of discovery about their past.

My Thoughts: We're only a hundred years removed from dirt roads and horses and buggies, and in some places not even that much. We're only a century and a half beyond the American Civil War, the conflict that ended slavery in the United States. We've come a long way, but we are not as advanced as we think we are.

In some ways, the rushes to advance have occurred in misstep. Nowhere is this reality better exemplified than in the juxtaposition of the American medical industry of the 1940s and 1950s and the home life of the Lacks family in rural Virginia at that same time. Physicians at Johns Hopkins diagnosed patients there using words the latter never had a chance of learning.

For many Americans the concept of rural poverty is undecipherable. We can say we understand poverty and get what is meant by living a rural life, but until we've seen it in action, considered it from all angles, we just don't truly know what it's all about. And so we come to the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta lived that life in the Jim Crow South, marrying a cousin and dying of cancer at a young age. Her cancerous cells - without any familial consent - were taken for lab use and became the standard experimental cells used in research around the world. They are sold today for large sums of money, yet her descendants cannot afford health care.

Skloot takes us on the road with her as she does her research. The book is not a straight history (though in some places it certainly is), but rather a first-person walkthrough of meeting the Lacks family and participating in their exploration of Henrietta's life and legacy. The story eventually centers on one daughter and her quest for knowledge about her mom and a sister mysteriously lost in the past as well.

The story is remarkable, when we consider that the HeLa cells have replicated themselves so many times that they could wrap the earth numerous times, still splitting sixty years after Henrietta died. We stand by  as the family comes to grips with their existence. Are they her mother or aren't they? Can they say, since her cells were shot into outer space, that their mother has been there, too?

The book wanders us into the waters of medical ethics from the 1800s to today, and begs us to consider the issues of research for the benefit of the greater population vs. personal ownership of our own cells. Should doctors and researchers be free to keep what is gathered from an operating table or an exam room and do with it whatever they wish? or should we, as patients, have the right to sell our cells to the highest bidder? Where is the line drawn?


  1. I read this several years ago and then recommended it to my sister-in-law. It turns out, she had actually worked with HeLa cells.

    An interesting debate on medical ethics. I can see some justification in wanting to use cells for the greater good (not just Ms. Lacks' cells), but you know there must be someone making money off of them. How do you justify that? Time to look for a good book on medical ethics.

    (I read No Way Home and left you a comment).


  2. I can't imagine the depths to which discussions on medical ethics must go...