Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rebecca Skloot could have written a book about cancer. She could have written a book about biology. She could have written a book about how science progresses and how business takes advantage of that progress.

She did write about all those things, but what she really wrote about was people: an almost unknown woman named Henrietta Lacks and, more importantly, the saga of her family. Indeed, the book is essentially the story of the Lackses, a working-class black family from Baltimore whose struggles play out against the discrimination of 20th-century American society.

As a teenager, Skloot stumbled on the story of the HeLa cells, cancer cells that had been extracted from Henrietta Lacks without her permission and had proven to be practically indestructible. Because of HeLa, scientists had made great advances in cell biology and companies had made millions based on the research they’d done.

But Lacks, who died in 1951, never knew her impact, and her family was kept in the dark about the cells for decades — partly through high-handed ignorance, partly through negligence, partly through misunderstandings.

Skloot, however, was determined to find the light. Who was this woman who should be celebrated, but whose actual life was, at best, a footnote in medical history? For 10 years, she kept at the story, despite suspicions from the oft-burned Lacks family and all kinds of dead ends.

That’s where Skloot is at her best. She addresses the science admirably, tracing how researcher George Gey sent the cells all over the world and how they became central to medical research. But more importantly, she never loses sight of the humanity of Henrietta Lacks and her family, particularly daughter Deborah.

Skloot returns to the small town where Henrietta grew up and follows her path to Baltimore. She doesn’t shy away from the troubles the Lacks family had (and no wonder: Henrietta had one daughter who was institutionalized and left four other children when she died at 31). In just one example, Deborah was molested by one relative and married as a teenager. Even when Deborah found out her mother’s cells were still alive, nobody explained the details to her. She had to educate herself on histology and cytology. She must have felt trapped in a bad movie, and the lack of understanding and compassion shown her made her nervous and occasionally paranoid.

What’s worse, because of the customs of the time when Henrietta died, the family never received any money for the use of her cells. (The legal status of using human material is still disputed, because one person’s medical waste may be a scientist’s golden ticket.)

It was all so unnecessary, this family’s pain.

Skloot’s book, which came out in 2010, has helped to right some of the wrongs. There’s now a headstone for her presumed gravesite, which had gone unmarked for many years. Her name is on a lecture series at Johns Hopkins, where her cells were harvested, and on a high school in Washington State.

But it makes you wonder. What if nobody had had Skloot’s tenacity? The Lacks family was so easily dismissed; a white woman doing her story was not so easily shown the door.

Whenever Skloot talked about Henrietta’s spirit fueling her own determination, I thought about a comment Frank Deford made about “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was,” his article about a once-forgotten Mississippi football coach, Bull Cyclone Sullivan. “It is a case of such coincidence and serendipity as to be fantastic,” he wrote of stumbling on the coach’s story in a left-behind newspaper. “The Sullivan family still looks upon me as some sort of instrument of the Lord — and I’m not prepared to doubt them.”

Throughout the book, Skloot makes mention of the Lackses’ belief that Henrietta remains watchful, that weather events and even a death had been due to her wrath from beyond the grave. That was before “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” came out. I hope that she’s resting easy now.

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