The world owes a huge debt Henrietta Lacks: much of our modern health care was developed using cell lines grown from her tissue. Henrietta was a working class black woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951 and the tissue that was so important was a biopsy of her cervical tissue, taken without good evidence of her having known or consented to that use (although the book does note that the lack of consent was in keeping with the medical ethics of its time). Today, pharmaceutical companies and other for-profit medical corporations have made billions off of Henrietta’s unique cells (they can replicate indefinitely in the right medium, which is not the case with almost every other cell studied by science) while Henrietta’s descendants continue to live below the poverty line, unable to afford the healthcare enabled by their mother’s contribution.
Rebecca Skloot’s well-written and thoughtful book reminds us that Henrietta was a real woman, and that she deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated as much as the doctors who performed research on her cells. Henrietta’s contribution resulted in phenomenal changes in medical history and Nobel prizes have been won for research using her cells- it is disheartening and yet unsurprising that her role remained largely unknown for so long.
Skloot’s book raises a lot of ethical questions that science still seems unprepared to answer, at least if answering them means jeopardizing the status quo for those making money. It is also a heartbreaking look at how Henrietta’s family struggled after her death, both financially and emotionally after losing their mother/sister/cousin, but also psychologically as tales of her cells’ immortality remained unexplained to them and created science fiction like fears. All this being said, Skloot’s is not without hope: some of the descendants are attending college and appear to be breaking the cycle of poverty and most of the descendants agreed that Henrietta helping the world was what she would have wanted.
I am optimistic that at the very least this book is helping change the Big Names we think of in science- everyone knows who Watson and Crick are, so here’s hoping that going forward we all know who Henrietta Lacks is too.