“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph. – Elie Wiesel, The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code
I bought The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks completely on the strength of its reviews on Amazon, without knowing what it was about at all. I figured the book was a biography of Henrietta Lacks’ life, but did not expect that its scope would extend to cell biology, bioethics, the recent history of the medical profession and class and race relations in the United States. The book manages to touch all of these areas and describe even the complex topics with clarity. But what this book is about most is people – specifically Henrietta and her kin.
Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. Skloot narrates Henrietta’s life from her childhood, to her marriage to her cousin at the age of 14, the birth of her five children, then eventually her struggle with, and demise from, cervical cancer in October 1951. Dr. George Gey, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, took samples of her cervical cells, both normal and cancerous, for his research and, miraculously, the cancerous cells multiplied and survived when every other sample he had ever taken had died within days. These cells became known as the HeLa cell line. HeLa continued to multiply at an aggressive rate and continue to do so today – they are immortal. HeLa cells have been used in a vast spectrum of scientific research, including developing vaccines; uncovering the secrets of viruses, bacterium, cancer and the effects of radiation; they have been sent to space and were part of the first cloning experiments.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of any of this until decades later when scientists began using each of them for research, all without their informed consent. For everything Henrietta’s cells contributed to society, nobody had taken the time to tell her family any of it, or look beyond HeLa cells to the woman behind them. Ergo, Skloot’s story feels long overdue and one that was meant to be told.
Skloot narrates the family’s story with grace and intimacy, engrossing the reader, and perhaps taking away precious sleep time hours because the book is just so hard to put down :). We trust Skloot’s narrative immediately because we can sense from early on in the book that her interest in Henrietta and her family is genuine.
Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in her high school science class, and from then on, she was fascinated and determined to learn more about her. What struck me immediately from Skloot’s prologue was that one such preoccupation can be the spark that will pave the course of one’s life. For Skloot, that moment in her science class, led to 10 years of research on the story behind Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, resulting in her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and a journey she could never have imagined.
My only complaint about the book is the gap between 2001 and 2009, when the book was published. While I trust that the most pertinent events in Skloot’s story occurred between 1999 and 2001, the first three years of her research, surely there was something to convey during that eight year period!