Tag: book

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

By Ed Yong | January 25, 2010 6:04 pm

Look in any biomedical laboratory, and you will find HeLa cells. Over 50 million tonnes of these cells have been grown in churning vats of liquid all over the world. They have been one of the most important tools in modern medicine, pushing forward our understanding of cancer and other diseases, and underpinning the polio vaccine, IVF, cloning, and more. None of these advanced would have been feasible without HeLa. Most scientists have used or seen them but most have no idea about their origin. It’s time to find out.

In early 1951, there was only one place in the world where HeLa cells could be found – the cervix of a poor, black tobacco farmer called Henrietta Lacks. She was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital where, without her knowledge or consent, doctors took some cells from her tumour and cultured them. They became HeLa – the immortal line of cells that would change the world. Henrietta died in the same year. Her family only learned of her “immortality” more than 20 years later, when scientists started using them in research, again without informed consent, to better understand Henrietta’s cells. The cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials but her family cannot afford health insurance.

The remarkably story of Henrietta’s life, cells and family are now coming to light, narrated in an equally remarkable book – Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot is a veteran science journalist and first-time author and her debut is thrilling and original non-fiction that refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. It is equal parts popular science, historical biography and detective novel. It reads as evocatively as any work of fiction, with dialogue, characters and settings vividly reconstructed from archived material, legal documents and thousands of hours of interviews. Like a mystery, the chronology flits back and forth from the first and last days of Henrietta’s life, the decades of discovery that followed her death and Skloot’s own modern-day quest to uncover the story.

Indeed, Skloot repeatedly appears as a character in her own book, narrating her journey from first hearing about HeLa cells in a classroom to her attempts to contact and support the Lacks family. This literary device could easily have come across as self-aggrandising but Skloot fully earns her status as the story’s third protagonist. Her narration reveals the trials that the Lacks family have undergone since Henrietta’s cells went global, and the sheer amount of trust it took to uncover the details of this story.

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