The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Update 4/14/10: Now with linky-love to the book.

I have just finished a most profound book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, about the first line of so-called “immortal” human cells and the woman from whose body they came.

Henrietta Lacks was a young married woman and mother of five who lived in Baltimore MD in the 1940s.  In 1951, after being in pain for over a year and throughout her final pregnancy, Henrietta went to the gynecology clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital to see a doctor about a “knot on [her] womb”.

This is the story of what happened when Henrietta’s certainty that something was wrong with the neck of her womb, her cervix, turned out to be true. During the treatment for the tumor, which involved inserting a tube filled with radium into her cervix, the surgeon cut samples of both the tumor and normal tissue from Henrietta’s cervix. These were taken to a Hopkins doctor who had been working for thirty years to grow malignant cells outside the body, trying to find cancer’s cause and cure.

Unlike other human cells the doctors had worked with, which died out very quickly, the cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks turned out to be “immortal”. That is, cells from the original sample continuously divided and replenished themselves — the cell line never died. In fact, “They grew twenty times faster than Henrietta’s normal cells, which died [after] only a few days. As long as they had food and warmth, Henrietta’s cancer cells seemed unstoppable.” [p 41.] It was the first time that any researcher ever found cells which did this.

What happened next, what the researchers did with those cells, and what happened to Henrietta’s family are all core pieces of this wonderfully-written story. After being diagnosed and treated, Henrietta went on with her life — what else could she do, after all? She alternated between days of treatment and weeks at home.

But the immortal cells took on a life of their own. They were replicated and replenished, and sent in vials and small containers all over the country and finally the world: over time they were used in cancer research, used to confirm the efficacy of the polio vaccine, used in the development of virology and in diagnosing genetic disorders, and much more.

After a number of months of treatment, Henrietta finally succumbed to the cancer. Her cells lived on, but for over 20 years, the Lacks family: Day, her husband; her three sons, Lawrence, Sonny, and Joe, who later was known as Zakariyya; and her younger daughter Deborah, never knew anything about that or that the cell line, known as HeLa, flourished and had a most profound effect on medical research and the progress of science. For much of that time as well, even very few doctors and researchers knew where the cells had come from.

Ms. Skloot expertly weaves the stories of Henrietta and her life, the lives of her children, her medical story and the immortality of the cells, as well as her own arc of discovery of the story of the cells, into a well-crafted tale moving between eras and various developments in medical science. She spent a decade researching the story of the HeLa cells and their “donor” (even though Henrietta never knew they’d been taken from her — it was long before the advent of informed consent). She developed a relationship with the Lackses, especially Deborah, that allowed her intimate access to the story and allows us, the readers, to dive deeply into the tale. In the end, the author became a trusted and good friend to Deborah and others in the immediate and extended family. Her kindness and determination to make sure Henrietta’s story and those of her family were properly and truthfully told makes this book very worth anyone’s time.

Get it. Read it. I highly recommend it.

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7 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. Pingback: Your Next Great Read | karma and musings

  2. We’re also talking about this book for Book Club. Non-fiction can be more difficult to discuss, but the book has stellar reviews. However, three of our members have husbands with cancer(including me), so if it delves too deeply into that part of it, I don’t want to read it. I already am dealing too much with the c-word!

  3. @Margaret, thanks for your comment. Overall, the book does not dwell on Henrietta’s cancer, but there *are* some pretty graphic descriptions of the type of treatment she was given, toward the beginning of the book – only a few pages worth though, two or three, really.

    Mostly the author’s interest was two-fold: telling the story of the science (in a very accessible, readable way) and telling the family’s story and how they were kept in the dark for so many years about what happened to their mother.

  4. Pingback: The “Ten Books” Meme | karma and musings

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