Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (February 2, 2010)
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?(taken from Rebecca Skloot's webpage)
I enjoyed this book, the story of how HeLa cells started was fascinating. The chapters were set in the years the discoveries were made and the idea that so many people have been helped by a few cancer cells is incredible. There were some very disturbing stats, 90% of the adult population has a form of HPV(sexually transmitted disease), her cells were so strong because of the type of HPV she had. Informed consent became an issue in the medical community after Henrietta's cells were taken. Up to then and for years to follow, scientists injected many unknown substances into prisoners, poor people, and terminally ill patients. They did this without consent and without the people knowing what they were being injected with. Medical research now takes more time and paperwork, but no one is being given anything they are not told ahead of time.
Her cells were used in making the polio vaccine and many others. They have been used to find a cure for many diseases that plague us all. The HeLa cells are extremely strong and virulent and invaded many other cell lines until proper storage and working conditions were established.
Her family was poor and black. No one ever explained to them what they had done with their mothers cells. The daughter who gave the information to the author, wanted to know more about her mother and what her cells were doing. She just did not understand how her cells could live and yet her mother was gone. Henrietta's family received no compensation for the help their mothers cells did for the world and cannot afford to see a doctor themselves.
The man who first grew her cells, never profited on them. He used them purely for scientific knowledge. I can tell you I'm glad informed consent is required now. Her family assumed the doctors were smarter then they were, so they let them do whatever they asked. How many of us don't question our doctor, we should.
Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Prevention, Glamour, and others. Ten years in the making, her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (forthcoming Feb. 2, 2010), is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. A starred Publishers Weekly review called it, "A remarkable debut ... recalls Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family ... A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people."Skloot has worked as a correspondent for NPR's RadioLab and PBS's Nova ScienceNOW, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including The Best Food Writing and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She blogs about science, life, and writing at Culture Dish, hosted by Seed Magazine. She is a former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, and is on faculty at the University of Memphis, where she teaches creative nonfiction. She divides her time between Memphis, New York City, and Portland, Oregon. And she regularly abandons city life to write in the hills of West Virginia, where she tends to find stray animals and bring them home.