In 1951, a young black woman died of a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or consent, cells from her tumor were taken for research–a common practice at the time. The result was the first line of “immortal” cells–able to reproduce in a lab setting indefinitely. These cells were key to developing vaccines, cancer treatments, and have even been sent into space to test the effects of zero gravity on tissue. Yet her family didn’t even discover until decades later that the cells had been used, and many within the medical community gave her a different name entirely when they did refer to her.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells of the dual legacy of the woman in question. First, there is the legacy of the cells themselves, known in the medical community as the HeLa cell line, and the questions of medical ethics involved. Then there is the legacy of the children she left behind, a family who feels violated and cheated by the circumstances which made her mother’s cells famous and made many others very rich, but who never received compensation of any sort.
The author does not shy away from any of the complex issues of race, informed medical consent, education, and the commercialization of medicine. She tells both the scientific story and the personal one with honesty. The book was the product of about ten years of research, of getting to know the family and learning their stories. It all came from a desire to know the real woman behind the cells that she studied in school, and to know what her story was. She took the time to build the trust of the family, to listen to them, and as a result, we get a brutally honest picture of the family that Henrietta left behind. Sometimes, I felt the personal stories went a bit too in depth, but the overall picture was well-balanced. Skloot doesn’t really offer answers to the questions posed, just tries to explore all aspects of the issues at hand. This isn’t a light read by any means, but it is a worthwhile one.