The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
As Reviewed by Joan Kirschner
Born in 1920, dead in 1951 of cervical cancer, Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived in pre-Civil Rights Era Baltimore. She was poor, had limited education, a somewhat less than devoted husband, five children, and when she needed treatment, went to the “colored” clinic at Baltimore’s nationally famous Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
At Johns Hopkins, after a misdiagnosis of her type of tumor, she received the harsh but most advanced cancer treatments of her time but these did little to help her. While she was being examined, a sample of her tumor was taken and used in Hopkins’ research laboratory. Scientists were intent on attempting to grow cells outside the body that could be used to determine many bodily processes and how the various organs were affected by cancer and other diseases. Unlike other cell samples which had always died in culture, and so became useless, Henrietta’s cancer cells were unique. They divided and reproduced prolifically, becoming a valuable commodity that was eventually sold at great profit around the world to many research facilities and other medical institutions.
This cell material was used in all sorts of research, and many of the great medical breakthroughs we are all aware of and benefit from today, including the polio vaccine and chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization and many others, would not have been possible without Henrietta’s reproducing genetic material. Her family, however, knew nothing of this for more than twenty-five years after her death, and remained poor, and without medical insurance, despite the millions of dollars biotechnology companies eventually made from the umpteen generations of cell material that descended from the initial sample of Henrietta’s tumor.
How this all happened, and its effect on the Lacks family is the subject of Rebecca Skloot’s amazing book, a true story which combines partly an almost science-fiction-like odyssey regarding the fate of Henrietta’s cells, a history and commentary on bio-medical research and medical ethics, a study of the effects of poverty and poor educational opportunities in a minority community, and a biography of a previously unknown woman and her family.
This book, a New York Times bestseller, is fascinating, heart-breakingly sad, questions the morality of our society and our view of medical research and care, and has already made many readers, including myself, angry and disturbed by some of the inequities and tragic outcomes it brings to light.
There is no question that current medical ethics are quite different and the laws protecting patient information and privacy have changed greatly too, but most of us, and especially the poor and uninsured in our society, are still vastly uninformed about the medical establishment, and for-profit biomedical research firms and drug companies. Ms. Skloot works hard to make the ramifications of this clear.
Ms. Skloot became interested in the story of Henrietta Lacks and her tumor’s role in biomedical research when she was a reluctant student aged just sixteen, and taking a required biology course at her local community college. She was intrigued by her professor’s presentation on cell biology—his discussion of the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells captured her attention and started her down a long road that led to a degree in biology, a graduate degree in writing, and a career in science journalism and university-level teaching in creative writing. She is the author of many articles for leading, respected publications, but it took her more than 10 years to research, develop and write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, her first book.
Ms. Skloot set up a foundation to help the Lacks family and other deserving individuals receive grants for medical and dental care, education and other assistance. Henrietta Lacks’ remaining children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been beneficiaries, and now Oprah Winfrey is reportedly involved in an HBO film about Lacks. Between Ms. Skloot’s compelling book and the forthcoming movie, it seems that Henrietta Lacks will become immortal in more ways than one.
© Book review copyright 2012 by Joan Kirschner.
Joan Kirschner is a locally based freelance copywriter and editor specializing in advertising communications, and has more than two decades of experience with leading national retailers and direct marketers. In addition, she is the book critique writer for:
The Women of Gloucester County online magazine’s The Book Corner.
Joan received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Penn State University and completed a professional certificate program in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other Languages) at CUNY Brooklyn College. She considers education to be a lifelong process.
Contact Joan at: email@example.com and 856-459-1765 or 856-381-9348.