Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Incredible! In-freakin'-credible! Rebecca Skloot's tale of Henrietta Lacks reads like a mystery, a thriller, and in a way a love story.

The mystery: how could a woman's cancerous cells be harvested and used for medical research without her knowledge? Skloot shows us how the law changed since the early 1950s when the white medical community experimented on black and Hispanic patients without telling them what was happening. Take an undereducated populace without the rights the majority enjoyed, and the possibility of an Island of Dr. Moreau rises. Skloot rightly points out that laws now protect patients' rights, but we still don't "own" any medical tissues removed from our bodies.

The thriller: how can one woman's harvested cells help develop treatments from such things as AIDS? A doctor at Johns Hopkins harvested cells, sent them to another doctor who cultured them in a lab and named them HeLa. The family had no idea about the initial cell removal, the cells' use in medical research, who profited, who didn't. All the family knew was that they didn't profit. No evil spies ran around trying to steal the cells. Anyone can order them through the Internet for very little money. The family thought they had been wronged but didn't have the means to prove it. One thing they wanted was acknowledgment of their mother's and grandmother's real name. Misidentified for decades, the woman from whom the HeLa cells were cultured is Henrietta Lacks. No other name is right.

The love story: when Skloot set out to right the wrong, she eventually joined forces with Henrietta's daughter Dorothy to uncover the whole story. This is a love-hate relationship. Dorothy doesn't fully trust this young white woman who's poking around in her family's past. Skloot wins her over, but the relationship is never without tension. Will Dorothy drop Skloot? And why? Like many of our friendships, we don't always trust completely, but we can relate with respect and friendship. At times, Dorothy trusts Skloot; at times she doesn't. But Skloot never stops trying to tell the story.

This is a book you can't put down. Well written, fast paced, it reads more like a novel than a scientific biography. Skloot put her money where her mouth is: she established a scholarship fund for the offspring of Henrietta Lacks. The rest of us benefit from the medical research done using her immortal cells.


  1. I heard about this on NPR the other morning. The book sounds great.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. I work in medical research, and as a previous poster said, this should be required reading for everyone that works in the biomedical sciences.