Friday, July 6, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a 31 year-old black woman with five children.  She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to be treated for “a knot in her womb”.  While being treated for cervical cancer (which treatment sounds almost barbaric to my 21st century sensitivities) her doctor took samples of her cancer cells and gave them to the laboratory, which was common practice for the time. Whether anyone actually asked permission no one is sure.  By the time Henrietta passed away her cells were on their way to immortality.  The cancer cells grew at an alarming rate and the scientists at Johns Hopkins were able to easily keep the “HeLa” cells alive, which up to that time scientists had not been successful in keeping a cell strain going. 

Soon Johns Hopkins were sending samples of HeLa cells to anyone who asked for them and they became the basis for most of the medical research world-wide for quite some time.  There are still HeLa cells being used today.

Henrietta’s family was not aware of their loved one’s legacy to the medical field until in the 1970’s when they heard of it by chance.  Being mostly undereducated, it was difficult for them to understand the role their mother/wife played in medical research.  What they did understand was that some part of her lived on. When the researchers came asking for blood samples from her children, they complied thinking they were being tested for the same cancer from which their mother died. What they were really doing was trying to map Henrietta’s DNA, so they could use the cells for further studies.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells in a biology class when she was sixteen.  She became obsessed with this woman. She spent over ten years studying the medical journals and interviewing Henrietta’s family and medical professionals.  She writes at the beginning of the book, “This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated.”  So when there is a conversation in the book, it is from the over 1,000 hours of interviews she conducted. And conversations are recorded in the dialect of the person speaking. 

The amazing thing about Ms. Skloot is that she makes this all so utterly fascinating. I could not put the book down.

5 stars (Rated PG – some graphic details)

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