Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph."ELIE WIESEL from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code

This week I tackled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a true story which is both captivating and disturbing.

The book chronicles the death of Henrietta Lacks and the immortality of her cells (the captivating part), but it also showcases a dark underbelly of the medical field (truly disturbing).

To begin, you'll meet Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who was dying of cancer.  Her treatment process at Johns Hopkins was typical for 1951, but sounds barbaric by today's standards.  However, her story gets really crazy when doctors take a sample of Henrietta's tumor without asking and make an incredible discovery:

“Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.”

Wait - What?

Doctors taking things without asking? Living cells living forever after the patient has died?

Yes. It's true.

Many times the narrative reads like fiction as the drama builds around the amazing properties of Henrietta's cells and how the cells were grown, bought, sold, and used around the world for medical research.  The cells were called HeLa and became one of the most important tools for developing a huge assortment of vaccines, cloning, and even genetic mapping.

I had never heard of HeLa cells, so I certainly didn't know a thing about Henrietta.

However, the book isn't really about Henrietta.  In fact, I finished the story knowing surprisingly little about the woman herself.  Instead I learned about the Lacks family and the tenacity of the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot, who worked overtime to gain the Lacks's trust.

This is a story which almost wasn't told.

You see, while billions of HeLa cells have been bought and sold, the Lacks family didn't even know they existed. When they finally discovered the truth, they were mistreated and in no way honored by what their mother had done.  Naturally, this made the family suspicious of anyone profiting from the story.

The whole narrative left me shaking my head.

This is an important story to know.  If you're fascinated with the details, pick up the book and you'll be treated to a medical page turner.  Alternatively, Oprah is in the process of adapting this story as a feature film, so you can catch it then.

In either case, even today, make sure you read the paperwork at the doctor's office.