Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars
Imagine if you were responsible for hundreds of medical breakthroughs and you never even knew about it. Imagine if you were responsible for hundreds of medical breakthroughs and no one else knew about it either. So was the life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta was killed by a particularly vicious form of cervical cancer that consumed her body in a matter of months. Early in her treatment, doctors took a biopsy of her cancerous cells and found something remarkable. They did not die. Cells, when taken out of a host, tend to be very difficult to keep alive and could only divide a certain amount of times before they stopped dividing. Henrietta’s cells not only stayed alive, they thrived and kept dividing forever. Scientists finally had a source of cells to perform research on that bypassed many of the troubles they had with other cell lines. Thus the HeLa cell line was born.
The book can really be divided into three distinct but intertwining stories; Henrietta’s story, her cells’ story, and her family’s story.
Henrietta’s story is interesting. Skloot does a very effective job of humanizing a woman whom nobody knows but everyone should. Until quite recently, every medical professional had heard of HeLa cells but few knew of the person from which they came. She didn’t deserve the death she had, but her death led to the saving of, likely, millions of lives. It is only fair that her actual life be immortalized in the same way her cells continue to live past her death.
HeLa’s story is absolutely fascinating. Scientists have since figured how to make other cell lines immortal, but no others have ever come directly from a human being save HeLa. There are more HeLa cells spread around the world than made up Henrietta Lacks’ body. We are talking measuring in tons. The amount of breakthroughs that were a direct result of being able to test with HeLa cells is remarkable.
The Lacks family story is a bit, er, lacking. When the story is on point and directly tied to their attempts to cope with the knowledge that their mother has the status that she does and the moral implications of people using her cells, it is both riveting and sad. There were so many people who tried to help and as many people who tried to take advantage of the Lacks family that they ended up not knowing who to trust. Their distrust was so great that it is remarkable that Rebecca Skloot was able to write the book in the first place. The Lacks family story revolves around one question; who owns your cells and who gets to profit from them? The answer remains to this day unanswered under law.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a book that should be read by all. Henrietta Lacks is a woman who should be known by all. It is mind-blowing that so much good can come from the death of one woman.