The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
(Crown Publishing, $26.00) ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2
*****
Henrietta Lacks was born August 1, 1920. in Roanoke, Virginia. Her birth certificate identified her as Loretta Pleasant, and no one knows how she became known as Henrietta. In her very early teens she married David Lacks. She has also been identified by the press as Helen Lane; and is known to the world's scientific community as the donor of the HeLa cells. It is well established that neither she nor her family had any knowledge of this donation at the time.

During 1951, Johns Hopkins had a large indigent black population in treatment, and it was here Henrietta came for a diagnosis. A biopsy revealed a malignant carcinoma in the cervix. Avant-garde treatment at that time was the implanting of radium near the site. After signing a consent form granting permission to perform any operative procedures that were deemed necessary, Henrietta underwent surgery. During surgery, two tissue samples were taken by the physician and records reflect that the tissue taken was given to Dr. George Gey. One sample was from the malignancy, the other from normal tissue.

Dr. Gey had spent years trying to grow cells outside the body. Most of the cells taken from patients died quickly, the few that survived barely grew at all. So Dr. Gey "took any cells he could get his hands on." To him, culturing Henrietta's sample of cells started as just one more experiment expected to fail. He was stunned to find the cells were doubling in numbers every twenty four hours, growing 20 times faster than the normal cells taken from Henrietta. The normal cells soon died, but the malignant ones have not yet died.

Later that year on October 4, 1951 Henrietta died, never knowing that these multiplying cells were being sent to researchers throughout the world, fueling the growth of biomedical research. They were known as HeLa cells, no doubt from the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last name.

In college, the author Rebecca Skloot was personally challenged by the need to know who the donor of the HeLa cells had been, and to learn more about her. This book is the result of her arduous and challenging task of assimilating the data of Henrietta's life. A white female stranger asking questions within a black rural community in the South about one of their deceased relatives was met by suspicion and silence much of the time. It took years to patch together enough pieces to create this biography and much of the book is devoted to that process. After chronicling what she could of Henrietta's life, the remainder of the book is devoted to the impact those "immortal" cells have made and will continue to make for seemingly generations to come.

In the world of research, Henrietta's cells were mixed with cells from other species, used in the polio vaccine discovery, AIDS research, genetic research, atomic bomb testing, and they were even placed on early space flights, testing the impact of space travel. Over 17,000 patents have been granted for research using the HeLa cells, and over 60,000 scientific articles have been written about research done with HeLa cells.

Insofar as the Lacks family was concerned, they learned of the "donation of cells" Henrietta had made in the 1970s. Because of cellular contamination, scientists realized they could identify the original HeLa strain cells by the DNA markers in the Lacks family. They turned to the family for these blood samples and at that time made disclosure to the family of what had been done. Unable to absorb the medical data, many of the Lacks family were tormented by the thoughts of these cells, what was being done to them or with them, and the fact that it was done without Henrietta's consent.

Finally, Rebecca Skloot chronicles her journey with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, as she comes to understand the contribution these cells have and will make in years to come.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an incredible biography, skillfully handled by a truly compassionate author.

--Thea Davis


@ Please tell us what you think! back Back Home