Today’s book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I heard about this book through various media outlets last year and heard the author being interviewed on NPR. It seemed (at the time) like an interesting work so I added it to my list for my year of books. When I finally got around to reading it this last week, what I discovered was an astonishing story.

Skloot focuses on a woman named Henrietta Lacks– a poor African-American woman who died of an invasive form of cervical cancer– but whose cancerous cells were removed for scientific research before her death by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Without her consent to be used for research purposes– something that was not uncommon in the early 1950s.)  The cells were unusual in that they continued to live in laboratory conditions and kept making copies of themselves. Those cells would become the basis for biomedical testing for decades, and would contribute to research on polio, AIDS, HPV, and cancer (among other things.) Without these cells, many major scientific breakthroughs would have not happened. But nobody told Henrietta about this. No one told her family, and no one thought about the implications, or even the ethics of taking an African-American woman’s cells and making money off their use while her own descendants continued to struggle with severe medical and financial problems (and that is only one aspect of a multifaceted ethical dilemma.)

The book contains multiple storylines to tell the main story. There is the story of Henrietta, her illness and a death. Then there is the story of her cells and the medical miracles that they helped bring about. Then there is the story of the Lacks family and their suffering– and of how Skloot worked for years to win their trust and friendship so that she could tell the most complete story possible. Somehow Skloot manages to weave all these threads together and tell a compelling story that brings out the humanity of Henrietta and her family, while also explaining the difficult and dense scientific side of Henrietta’s story.

I couldn’t put this book down.  First of all, Skloot’s storytelling is phenomenal. She seamlessly interweaves so many different aspects of the story, and manages to remain evenhanded. Her work is careful, knowing that Lacks’s family distrusted all the “white people” who were trying to make a profit off their mother’s cells. And she is honest– this was not an easy book to write– she faced so many roadblocks, yet somehow she pulls everything together and manages to tell Henrietta’s story. By following the family’s wishes to not “pretty up” the book she tells a raw story about the family’s past and how in the present, they have come to grips with that past.

There is so much to say about this book, but I hardly know where to begin. All I have to say is this: read the book, and be a witness to what happened to Henrietta Lacks. That is what her family wanted in the publishing of this book. They wanted people to know her story, to know that she was a person, and for people to know how her cells changed science. They wanted people to think about the ethical dilemma that scientific research on tissues (that were once part of actual people– and usually taken from the poorest minorities without their consent) represents and for people to realize that such research can have long-lasting effects on the families of those who were researched.

Read it and realize that Henrietta’s story is not just a scientific story but a very human story.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C