Science writer Rebecca Skloot uncovered much more than the history of a cell line when she set out to write a book about HeLa, a strain of human cells that figured in the development of significant advances in medicine. Her ten years of research brought her into intimate contact with the descendants of Henrietta Lacks, who was in her mid-30s when her cervical cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge and became the first human cells ever grown in a lab.
The conventions of the time dictated that the cells would be known as HeLa, for the first and last names of the donor. The conventions of the time (1951) also dictated that Henrietta, who was black and poor, would neither know of nor benefit from her donation.
She died soon after, and her family, who endured poverty and deprivation, would hear about her cells—now numbering in the billions—from time to time as HeLa journeyed to the moon, figured prominently in AIDS research, and helped researchers create a polio vaccine. Her children never fully comprehended that it was not their mother who was somehow being kept alive, enduring tests and benefitting people with access to health care (something they themselves lacked).
This book is beautifully written—evocative, sensitive, and compassionate. It is not simply a bioscience book; through writing about HeLa, Skloot examines a wide swath of knotty subjects that interact with and influence America’s relationship to science: race, class, gender, patients’ rights, health care access, social convention, education, and religion. Henrietta comes to life in the first few chapters; the cast of characters who ensured that the cells would be promulgated around the world are the focus of the second part. Most wrenching is the third section, where Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was just a little girl when her mother died, is Skloot’s conflicted guide and confidante. A portion of sales of this thought-provoking, award-winning (and Oprah-optioned) book goes to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help her descendants get the education and medical care she never had; many readers of the book have also donated.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Available at Vroman’s and everywhere books are sold.