Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Contingency has been on my mind quite often these days. What would life look like today if the ancestors of the first land-dwelling vertebrates had two legs instead of four? How would non-avian dinosaurs continue to have evolved if they had not been wiped out 65 million years ago? What if, like many other prehistoric apes, our own ancestors fell into extinction during the Pliocene? Any one of these events would have changed the history of life on earth, and even though there are not answers to these questions they still remind me of how historical quirks can have major effects.

Though it has nothing at all to do with fossils or evolution, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also a tale of contingency. In February of 1951 doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed cancerous cells from the cervix of a 30 year old African American woman who had come in complaining of a painful “knot” inside of her. She had no idea that the sample of her cells had been taken, but this small event of one woman’s life would end up changing the world in ways that no one expected.

This woman was Henrietta Lacks, and even though she died from the cancer in October of 1951 the descendants of the cells taken from her over a half century ago are still thriving in laboratories around the world. Because of a biological quirk scientists were able to turn her cells into the first “immortal” cell line, called HeLa, the study of which has greatly increased our knowledge of ourselves and led to the effective treatment of numerous diseases. Her cells have affected the lives of people all over the world, and this makes it all the more shameful that, until now, almost no one knew anything about her.

The true strength of Skloot’s book is that it is not a simple celebration of science. Innumerable articles and several books have been written about the HeLa cell line before, but they largely ignored Henrietta and her family. The story of the poor black woman who had her cells taken from her without her knowledge or consent just did not register with most writers (especially since it was decades before anyone knew her real name), and the attitudes of journalists and scientists made Henrietta’s family increasingly bitter about the entire affair. While medical companies made millions off of Henrietta’s cells they remained poor and could barely afford health insurance even in the best of times. And as famous as Henrietta’s cells were her family knew almost nothing about what happened to her or what was taken from her. While Skloot ably covers the science of HeLa, the real story is the personal drama of Henrietta and her family, in which Skloot comes to play a substantial part.

As I read through this story of science, race relations, medicine, and poverty I could not help but wonder how things would have been if small events had turned out differently. What if doctors and scientists had informed the Lacks family about HeLa earlier, and what would have happened if the scientists that finally did were not so inept at communicating what had happened to Henrietta? What if Skloot had never followed her deep desire to know who Henrietta was, or what if the Lacks family, frustrated that another journalist was coming around asking questions, decided to ignore Skloot’s persistent phone calls? Would Henrietta’s life have remained a mystery even to her own family?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing (it is truly one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read), and I was deeply affected by it on a personal level. The story reaffirmed that small events can have major repercussions, and as sad and angry as the tale of the Lacks family made me by the end of the book I was glad that Skloot had worked so hard to reach them. Through something as simple as wanting to learn more about Henrietta’s life Skloot and the Lacks family were able to create a fitting tribute to Henrietta and her legacy. For the first time, the most important woman in modern medicine is having her story told, and I truly hope that it gets the attention it deserves.

You can contribute to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation here.

[Be sure to check out the reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at the New York Times and Not Exactly Rocket Science, as well.]

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