This seemed like a fitting time to read Henrietta’s story, so closely following Black History month where her name has become a popular “little known hero” and did you know fact.
I don’t remember hearing anything about HeLa cells in AP Bio as a senior in high school, but I do remember seeing the bright orange book cover of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in my college’s bookstore. Since then I feel like the name Henrietta Lacks is a bit more common knowledge, which was clearly Skloot’s goal.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is the story of two women, or really three. First and foremost is the story of Henrietta- who at the age of 31, shortly after giving birth to her 5th child, was diagnosed with an aggressive case of cervical cancer (later attributed to the multiple strains of HPV she had). Unbeknownst to Henrietta or her family, a doctor took scrapings of her tumor and normal cells to see if they could get them to grown outside the body. Unlike any other culture doctors had tried to grow in labs before, the cancerous cells thrived and became “immortal.” Henrietta died but her cells lived on, creating medical breakthroughs like the polio vaccine and gene mapping. Every scientist knows HeLa, almost no one knew Henrietta Lacks.
The other story is the story of Rebecca Skloot, a science journalist who funded her research with student loans and credit cards in order to get Henrietta and her family’s story out. She is accompanied (after a few years of avoidance) but Henrietta’s youngest daughter- Deborah. Deborah never knew her mother, she was about two when she died, and has a lot of anxiety related to the whol situation. Henrietta’s family is in-bred, poorly educated and deeply bitter; it takes a lot for Skloot to make headway into Henrietta’s personal life because they’ve been burned a lot. I feel this book would have been published years sooner if there had been more willingness to talk on the Lackses part. The controversy on whether the family should be compensated is not one I care to comment one.
You don’t have to know a lot about science to read this, Skloot is good at explaining a lot of the “science-y” things- probably from all the practice she received trying to help Deborah understand. It’s a good read for anyone who appreciates science or history. I definitely felt some white guilt upon my completion.