Of the 40+ books I read in 2012, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has probably been my favorite.
In the 1950s doctors took cells from a thirty-one year old African-American woman dying from cervical cancer, without her consent or her family’s knowledge. The cells and their offspring would go on to revolutionize science and the medical industry for decades to come, creating a multi-million dollar industry along the way (none of which Henrietta’s family benefited from).
Henrietta’s cells, known in the scientific world as “HeLa,” have likely impacted the lives of nearly every person on earth. They were used in the development of the polio vaccine, turning the disease from a devastating epidemic to one that has nearly been eradicated in roughly a 50 year period. HeLa cells have also led to many important cancer-related studies, such as linking the virus HPV to cervical cancer, and later developing the HPV vaccine.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is part biography of Henrietta’s short life and how the eventual knowledge of her immortal cells has shaped the lives of her surviving family members. The book also details the history of the immortal cells, how they have shaped medical research over the years, and raises many important issues in the field of biomedical ethics.
What I liked best about the book was the story of Henrietta’s surviving family members. Her only surviving daughter, Deborah, became quite close to author Rebecca Skloot during the course of research for the book, and took immense pride in her mother’s legacy, trying to learn as much about science as she could even though she only had a middle school education. Rebecca was first intimidated when she met Henrietta’s youngest son, Zakariyya, who had been in and out of prison and dealt with tremendous anger management issues. From the moment of conception, Zakariyya’s life had been impacted by Henrietta’s cancer cells — from being inside her womb alongside the growing cancer, to growing up without a mother, to feeling the weight of injustice of the use of the immortal cells.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of all is that most of Henrietta’s surviving family members lived in poverty and couldn’t even afford health care themselves, yet others have become rich and famous thanks to Henrietta’s cells. I wonder if the story would have been different had Henrietta been white, or from a middle-class family. It also makes you wonder what comes first in the minds of many scientists and medical professionals — people or profit.