Henrietta Lacks died in agony on October 4th, 1951 due to the tumours that had spread throughout her body. In the end, the only thing she wanted was for her family to be taken care of, and this was a wish that did not become a reality. Although Henrietta’s physical body died, some proclaim that she has achieved immortal life as her cells still live on today through the infamous cell line, HeLa. Too often, individuals remember only the extraordinary discoveries that HeLa cells, the first immortalized human cell line, have contributed to the fields of cell culture, medicine, and biology. They forget that Henrietta Lacks was a real woman with a real story and a real family; she was a mother, a wife, a cousin, a sister, a friend.
In her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells the interwoven narratives of Henrietta’s life, the lives of the family members she left behind, and the stories of the people involved in the incredible scientific advances that were made possible by her immortalized cell line that continues to grow decades later. Rebecca refuses to shy away from the painful, tragic, demoralizing, and horrifying aspects of the reality of these stories. She intermingles the joy with the sorrow in such a way that the pages fly by without thought. The reader can’t help but find themselves celebrating the moments of triumph with Henrietta’s family then commiserating at their setbacks and suffering.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not an easy read as it brings to light hard topics such as medical ethics, racism, poverty, and the rights individuals have concerning privacy and consent. However, the natural, story-telling rhythm of the book is so intrinsically human that it draws the reader in, despite its unflinching look at the real nature of the world. Through this novel, one can get to know Henrietta’s life, beginning with her birth in a small, slave cabin in Roanoke, Virginia, through the births of her five children, to her sudden cancer diagnosis and painful passing. Rebecca tells us that ultimately, Henrietta was a woman who cared about her family and that the positive impact of her cells is something that she would have been happy to see.
Rebecca explains the progression of scientific advances achieved using the HeLa cell line from the birth of the field of human cell culture to the discovery that human cells have 46 chromosomes, to the development of a vaccine for HPV. The accomplishments are legion, and the individuals who were involved in these discoveries have taken their place in history. Meanwhile, Rebecca informs us that after her death, Henrietta’s family
suffered without her care and guidance. The truly impressive and unique feat of this novel was the sheer grit and determination it took in order to get Henrietta’s skittish and wary family to open up about what they knew and who they were. Ill-treated by the media, they were not quick to trust the unknown white woman who was asking them questions they had been hounded about before. It was through consistent effort and genuine passion to tell Henrietta’s story, that Rebecca managed what no one else had before: she told the pure truth of Henrietta and her family without trying to glamourize the ugly pieces. Rebecca did not ignore or shy away from the racial overtones and undertones to this story, including the often genuine and founded fear the black community experienced over medical experimentation and malpractice.
This book is not a dry, clinical recitation of scientific discovery and experiments. Although to the scientific minded, it could benefit from a few more details of these incredible advances. However, that is truly not the point to this book. Instead, it is a story that has heart. In the end, it is a story about humanity, the good and bad. Rebecca reminds us that Henrietta Lacks continues to live on not just in the cells she left behind but in the family that remembers her, and those that remain interested in her story.
Skloot, R. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Crown, 2011).