reviewed by Deborah Bowles
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by science journalist Rebecca Skloot, is the amazing story of the origin of the HeLa cell, the world’s first immortal human cell. Weaving together biography, science, and the ethics of biomedical research, Skloot brings to life the African American woman whose visit to a hospital connected her, without her knowledge, to the most significant medical advances of the twentieth century.
Henrietta Lacks grew up on a Virginia tobacco farm and later migrated to Baltimore with her husband and five children. In 1951, when she was thirty, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for what she called a knot in her womb. The knot was an aggressive cervical cancer, and she was soon hospitalized with no hope for recovery. The public wards of Johns Hopkins were filled with patients like Lacks, mostly black and unable to pay their medical bills. Perceived as powerless by doctors, these patients were often kept uninformed of treatments and procedures they received while hospitalized. It was also normal practice, and remains so today, for doctors to collect cells and tissue samples without patient consent. Before Lacks died, doctors removed samples of her cancerous tissue without her consent and without informing her family.
Lacks’s cells were astoundingly resilient—they not only lived outside of her body, but thrived and reproduced like no other human cells. Lacks’s cells, named HeLa after the first letters in her names, replicated themselves indefinitely in the lab and soon became a medical marvel. HeLa cells were initially given away to any doctor or lab that requested them, but they were eventually commercialized, resulting in millions of dollars of profits. HeLa cells have been used in vast amounts of medical research and were involved in creating the polio vaccine, chemotherapy drugs, and AIDS treatments. Shockingly, Lacks’s family knew nothing about the cells’ existence and their impact on modern medicine until Skloot contacted them while writing this book.
Skloot’s dedication to sharing Lacks’s story with the world is evident on every page. She first learned of the HeLa cell in a biology class and was intrigued by the mysterious female donor. She spent over a decade researching Lacks’s life and family and the trajectory of her cells. Lacks’s family—plagued by poverty and health problems—initially reacted to learning about HeLa with suspicion and anger. Rumors of poor African Americans kidnapped for research purposes and treated like guinea pigs at Johns Hopkins circulated throughout Baltimore for decades, and learning about HeLa confirmed their worst nightmares. As she conducted her research, Skloot worked, with sincerity and patience, to help them understand and appreciate Lacks’s contribution to medicine, but she didn’t try to convince them that it was right that no one informed them of HeLa’s immortal existence.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating book that gives due honor to the woman herself while raising many questions about the ethics of medical research. It remains normal practice for doctors to take cells and tissue samples without patient consent. Should doctors have that right? Should we be comfortable not knowing if or how our cells are used once they are taken from our bodies? Is it ethical for hospitals to profit from selling a patient’s cells and not share those profits with the patient or the family? And if medical advances are only possible by keeping patients uninformed, are these questions still worth asking?
Deborah Bowles is a National Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation. She has an MA in secondary education and a BS in business administration. She lives outside of Washington, D.C., and enjoys spending her free time reading and researching history.