The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I’ve breezed by Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book in several stores. Similar to when I see the book on websites, I glance at the cover, skim the summary, and move on. Strangely, when NPR listed the book as “Best of the Bestsellers” and mentioned it as “a startlingly powerful science thriller from a nonfiction newcomer,” I decided to give the book a little more attention. Just a little. NPR notes:

The explosive ingredients in this nonfiction book — a scientific thriller, an untold family story, an exploration of race and class — add up to riveting social commentary. Released in February, the book (which is slated to be an Oprah-produced HBO film) remains one of 2010’s most-talked-about titles. Skloot’s dramatic narrative follows three tracks. The first traces the life of Henrietta Lacks, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer, leaving behind a husband and five children. Skloot parallels that with the story of the cells (codename: HeLa) drawn from Lacks’ tumor, which became the world’s first “immortal” human cells cultivated in a laboratory. The writer’s third narrative thread weaves in her own relationship with Lacks’ children in the years after they find out about the highly lucrative medical uses of their mother’s cells (which were taken without her permission). In a final act of authorial grace, Skloot is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the nonprofit foundation she set up to provide scholarships and medical coverage to Lacks’ descendants. (Read excerpt)

In Skloot’s prologue excerpt, she discusses how her interest in Lacks developed in a high school biology classroom in the 80s. Me being the kinda sorta nerd that I am, I searched Google Books for the Ebony magazine articles she references below. Skloot writes:

As I graduated from high school and worked my way through college toward a biology degree, HeLa cells were omnipresent. I heard about them in histology, neurology, pathology; I used them in experiments on how neighboring cells communicate. But after Mr. Defler, no one mentioned Henrietta.

When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.

Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henrietta’s husband saying, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.” Jet said the family was angry — angry that Henrietta’s cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said, “Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”

The articles all ran photos of Henrietta’s family: her oldest son sitting at his dining room table in Baltimore, looking at a genetics textbook. Her middle son in military uniform, smiling and holding a baby. But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. Except Deborah. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. She’s twenty-six years old and beautiful, with short brown hair and catlike eyes. But those eyes glare at the camera, hard and serious. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, yet at that point she’d been dead for twenty-five years. (Read full excerpt)

Sadly, unlike many people (since it’s a bestseller), I don’t know if I’m interested in reading a 400-page book on this topic. Instead, I’ll access my favorite reference Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present. And yup, just as I thought, there’s a page dedicated to Mrs. Lacks and related cases. You can trust that Lacks isn’t the only African American that fell victim to the evolution of scientific study. Call me ignorant, but if you read too many books like this you will consider avoiding flu shots, vaccines, and all those prescription drugs they pass out at pharmacies like candy. Or maybe that’s my “just let me die with it” mentality. My tests are all clear, by the way.

Happy reading, y’all.

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11 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. I’m excited about this story. I first learned of Henrietta Lacks when I was working in a cancer research lab and found out that I was using her cells! I agree with you about the 400 pages, that’s a bit much.

    Someone has told me to read Medical Apartheid before, I avoided doing so because I figured it would only upset me. I think I’m going to pick it up after all, I’ll just have to keep my emotions in check.

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  2. This is a pretty substantial piece of writing, but its definitely worth it. Much of the book is devoted to the family’s story. I found it absolutely absorbing and I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

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  3. I’ve been reading this book this week, and paused for a second to look for the photo of Henrietta Lacks that is mentioned prominently. You may want to reconsider and pick this up. It’s hefty, but it’s well-written, as much a dramatic presentation as chronicle of a historic, unfortunate turn in the history of a family and a species.

    And The Warmth of Other Suns is next on my bookpile.

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  4. I must agree, the book is a “must” read. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it ever since I heard about it and was not disappointed. This is a well written, thoughtful book. Rebecca keeps your interest from beginning to end. It is thought provoking and sheds light on not only Henrietta Lacks involuntary contribution to the scientific community, but also their calous disregard of her as a human and Rebeccas strugle to share this story.

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  5. Pingback: Henrietta Lacks « … but I digress

  6. i work in a school, on my lunch break, i went to the library, and just picked up this book, i heard my parents speak about this, i’m 48, i read the whole book at work, sorry, but i did, i couldnt help it, i flipped thru the pages, and saw a preacher at my church, he was married to deborah lacks/pullum, he is rev. pullum, ……i’m from east-baltimore, grew up down below jhh, and i heard the stories about how jhh, was established in that neighborhood, because they used poor black people for research, some even say they, stole blacks and did research and experiments, even killed them. What they did to this black woman/& her family is truly a disgrace, jhh, became even richer, her fam should be well compensated for this, they stole from them, and is the richest hospital in the world,…………………a billion dollar institute, and they were robbed of their dignity,this woman cells are floating everywhere, they shunned them, its truly a sad story,…..i mean my fam, would have owned half of jhh, and more, God bless them, i’m truly sadden by this. We call jhh, the killer hospital, now its true!

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