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 atom bomb’s effects; 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.
Though this sounds like fiction, this story is amazingly true. For someone like me who is virtually illiterate when it comes to anything scientific, I found Skloot's book surprisingly easy to follow. She brings up real questions about the right we have to our bodies. I was shocked to learn that there is still no law forbidding doctors from taking discarded tissue and using it without the donor's consent. Meaning, if you've ever had a blood sample taken, gotten a mole removed, etc. the doctor can save those samples, experiment with them, or sell them without ever telling you. Very interesting.
In addition to the scientific and legal aspects discussed in the book, Rebecca Skloot also shows the effects that this research has had on Henrietta Lack's family. It's both touching and tragic. Makes you wonder what would have been different if Henrietta had lived past her early thirties...
I would definitely recommend this book.