How the cells from the cancerous cervix of an impoverished black woman from Baltimore came to be the foundation for basically all scientific research with cells in the world.
I was very excited to learn that my public library was going to begin lending Kindle books. The list was pretty dismal, but I had heard good things about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks so I decided to give it a try.
Henrietta Lacks was born and raised and ultimately died in poverty. A black woman who married her first cousin and had her first child by him when she was only 14, she died of an unusually aggressive form of cervical cancer that ultimately took over her whole body. While she was being treated at Johns Hopkins, researchers took samples of her cells, as they did with many patients, in the hopes of creating a line of cells that would be immortal–that is, continue to grow and divide infinitely. It had never been done before, but it happened with Henrietta’s cells, dubbed HeLa.
Henrietta didn’t know her cells were taken, nor did her family. Most researchers didn’t give a thought to the real woman behind the cells that offered countless possibilities for scientific inquiry. There were no laws or regulations to cover this kind of usage, and when her family found out, they were angry. But they didn’t find out for decades.
This is a fascinating hybrid of science and biography. Fortunately for Skloot, the Lacks family is colorful beyond anything that could be made up, and the science is easy to make accessible. Great read and a nice non-fiction break.