Thursday, February 11, 2010
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Avid readers who follow book websites, blogs, and other sources have no doubt heard about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I heard about it on Books on the Nightstand's weekly podcast and immediately put it on hold at my local library; within a few days of the book's release I was able to pick it up and dive right in.
Ladies and gentlemen, this book is worth all of the buzz it is receiving and then some.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman living in the Baltimore area in the late 1940s. She was married and had five children; after the birth of her fifth child she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the hospital (Johns Hopkins, at that time one of the few hospitals in the area who would treat "colored" patients), her cancerous tumor was removed and the cells sent to a laboratory at the hospital.
Unfortunately, Henrietta's cancer rapidly spread throughout her body and she died in 1951. However the cells taken from her tumor grew in culture in the lab, becoming the first human cells to do so. These cells - known as HeLa - are still alive today and have been instrumental in many medical advances (the polio vaccine, for example) and in other scientific research.
Henrietta's family, however, knew nothing about their mother's contributions to science, and while biochemical companies and medical researchers were achieving fame and fortune thanks to the HeLa cells, Henrietta's husband, children, and grandchildren were struggling to afford medical insurance.
The injustice of this story is apparent, but it is not the focus of the book. We get to know the Lacks family - especially her daughter Deborah and son Zakariyya, the youngest of Henrietta's children who were very young when she died. What struck me most about the family is that after the anger and desire to sue those involved had subsided (I don't know that it would ever go away) they are simply proud of what their mother has contributed and want her to receive the recognition they feel she deserves.
I can't do justice to this book in a blog post. It is a story that will make you angry, sad, yet encouraged by the spirit of this family.