The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, is a non-fiction book that tells the story of the legendary Henrietta Lacks. Skloot seeks out to share the story of a woman whose DNA has had a lasting effect on science. Henrietta, born in 1920, lived a less than charmed life. She was raised by her grandfather after her mother died while delivering one of her siblings. After moving in with her grandfather she was married to her first cousin and had her first child at the age of 14. Along with farming tobacco she would go on to deliver four more children. After giving birth to her fifth child, Joseph, she noticed a knot in her lower abdomen and began bleeding profusely. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, where she was treated. She was given internal radium tubes to treat the tumor and when the tubes were taken out two samples of her cervix were taken without her knowledge or permission and given to Dr. George Otto Gey. Henrietta died months after the treatment and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her cells would live on and become the HeLa immortal cell line, the oldest and most widely used cell line in scientific research. Her cells are able to be divided for an unlimited amount of times within controlled conditions, which is why they are “immortal.” Her cells went on to provide the basis for the research of cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, and during the development of the polio vaccine. Her cells were also the first cells to be cloned.
Despite the irreplaceable contributions that her cells have made to the world of science Henrietta’s family was not notified of the use of her cells and received no compensation for the unauthorized use of her mother’s cells. This is where Skloot enters. Her book takes you through her exploration of Henrietta’s life and the lives of her children and the many ways in which their lives were affected by the immortalization of their mother’s cells. Not only does she give you the facts and scientific data behind the production of Henrietta’s cells, she brings a compassionate and human outlook on the life of a woman and her family. Unlike the scores of people who have used Henrietta as a means to further research Skloot looks into the injustice that so many have been able to profit from the success of HeLa without even knowing her name. Skloot addresses the racial and emotional implications of this conflict through her writings.
I have read this novel multiple times, and every time that I read it I find myself not only enthralled by the manner in which Skloot is able to portray this conflict which stretches throughout decades of events, but I am also amazed by Skloot’s determination and her bravery. She took a big leap speaking out on the transgressions of the research world and questioned the ethics of the industry which has made so many bounds by the use of Henrietta’s cells. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy non-fiction, and to people who have never ventured into the world of non-fiction. Skloot is anything but clinical in her telling of this story although the book does contain a lot of medical jargon she takes strides to explain the terms to the reader. You should also pick up this book in anticipation of the upcoming film that is being produced by Oprah Winfrey and HBO producer Allan Ball!