Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells–taken without her knowledge in 1951–became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book I’d been hearing about for years, but as I rarely pick up non-fiction, I’d never gotten around to actually reading it. Finally, I decided to give the audiobook a try.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with five children who was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer in the early 1950s, before finally dying of the disease in 1951. Doctors treating Henrietta removed samples of her tumor during her treatments, and these cells grew in culture at an unprecedented rate, becoming the first immortal cells ever created in medical history.
In the years since, HeLa cells have been used worldwide for medical research, and it is said that without the HeLa line, many of our current medical advances and treatments would not exist.
In The Immortal Life, author Rebecca Skloot explores both the scientific journey of Henrietta’s cells and their impact on modern medicine, and the lives of the family that Henrietta left behind. Amazingly, while HeLa was incredibly important and famous among the scientific community since the early 1950s, it was not until decades later that Henrietta’s family had any inkling that her cells had been preserved and were still being used for scientific advancement.
The author describes Henrietta’s early life and marriage, the birth of her children, and her suspicion around age 30 that something was wrong with her, leading to her treatment at Hopkins and ultimately, her death from a particularly virulent strain of cervical cancer. Henrietta is portrayed as an energetic, spirited woman and a devoted mother, who never fully understood her condition or her treatment.
Henrietta’s treatment at the time was probably not unusual, and there’s no indication that the medical care she received was not up to the standards of the 1950s. Henrietta was not asked for permission to take her cells for study, but again, that was not the practice at the time.
The book has many chapters describing the scientific impact of the HeLa cells, their use, their impact, and their study over the years. The book also covers topics concerning medical ethics, questions still under debate today, such as who “owns” the tissues removed from patients and who can and should profit from their commercialization. Some interesting examples are given, such as cases where millions of dollars in profit are made by the medical industry while the donor patient receives nothing.
Along those lines, we spend quite a bit of time with the Lacks family, most particularly with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah becomes Rebecca Skloot’s companion in her quest to understand Henrietta’s life and death, and her spirit and energy infuse much of the book. The author traces their travels together to the family’s rural home and through the bits and pieces of medical records which they manage to uncover. It’s clear that the family received little information about HeLa or what the cells actually were, so that Deborah often referred to them as being parts of her mother still alive, imagining her mother being experimented upon, and becoming agitated over the types of experiments conducted — describing at various times that parts of her mother were shot into space, used to test nuclear bombs, and infected with AIDS (all actually types of scientific work done using HeLa cells).
There’s a lot of fascinating information in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but overall, something about this book didn’t quite fit together for me. There are at least two distinct pieces here — the scientific elements related to the HeLa cell line, the use of tissue cultures, and the biomedical ethical issues; and the story of the Lacks family, their hardships, and the impact upon them of the fame of HeLa and the resultant loss of privacy for the family.
The author, in the book’s afterword, states that one of her purposes in writing this book was to bring to life the woman behind the cells, to make it clear to the world that HeLa is more than just nameless cells, but rather the living remnants that once were part of a real woman who had a name, a life and a family. I think the book absolutely succeeds in this regard.
Still, I couldn’t quite decide what the ultimate point was, or what we are to conclude about the scientific and ethical issues raised here. Was it wrong to use Henrietta’s cells for research? I really can’t believe that. Should patients have control over what happens to their tissues? Should patients have a monetary stake in research involving their tissues? What would that mean for ongoing research? These are big issues, but I felt that the nuances became a little muddy when mixed with the story of the Lacks family. It’s wonderful that Henrietta herself is finally getting recognition, but I’m not sure that this case proves anything when it comes to the confusing, often contradictory elements of the bioethical issues.
Regarding the audiobook itself, I question some of the production decisions made regarding the narration. Most of the narration is a straightforward read of the book, but quotes are read by a different narrator, with ethnic accents and dramatization. It’s not just the Lacks family that gets this treatment — a doctor of Chinese descent is read with a heavy Chinese accent, and there are a few others as well. This is a work of non-fiction, and adding this interpretive treatment of the text felt unnecessary to me, and ultimately, it was distracting.
The book itself is organized in a way that feels muddled and confusing. The chapters jump from present to past, from science to personal, and the transitions are quite abrupt. Particularly via audiobook, this jumping around makes the narrative hard to follow, and the logical sequence is occasionally lost.
I did find much of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quite interesting, and I was moved by the family’s story, particularly Deborah’s. Still, the combination of the two halves of the story didn’t quite gel for me, and the book as a whole wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be.
Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: February 2, 2010
Audiobook length: 12 hours, 30 minutes
Printed book length: 370 pages
Genre: Non-fiction (science/biography)
Source: Library (Overdrive)