Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

[Image description: A book cover. In the background and HeLa cells dyed orange and pink. In the foreground is Henrietta Lacks standing with her hands on her hips, smiling.]

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Link: Amazon

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

 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.

Nothing in this world occurs in a vacuum.

Henrietta Lacks was an unwitting organ donor and her cells gave life to some of the most important medical discoveries of all time. She was also a wife and a mother. A friend and a cousin. She was a tobacco farmer. She was the descendant of slaves. She was indigent poor.

As she, and every human being, is a complex and layered creature so is the book that narrates her life. “The Immortal Life…” is a memoir, family history, social history, and a commentary on medical ethics. It is very difficult to capture an entire zeitgeist, much less follow its haunt across multiple decades. Nevertheless Skloot weaves an intricate work of intersecting lines of race, class, ethics and culture.

What it is not is the bare textbook facts of cell culture. There are thousands of such works. Works that leave the bodies of those they are crafted from in the ether. Skloot instead tries to give Henrietta what is promised in the title, an immortal life.

There is something profoundly cruel that immortality was achieved through the means of death. The cells cultured were from the tumor that eventually killed its host. Doctors are descried as desperate to autopsy the body of the woman that had already raised an immortal line of cells. She is filled with pearls, in every sense. The scene, intentionally or not, stirred some deep distaste in me.

“This will be for the good of your children.” Yet Henrietta, until just about now, was never lauded, and her children are left to suffer in the same poverty that their miraculous mother suffered.

Skloot never shies away from the dark side of medical ethics and all that had occur to protect vulnerable patients. Most nowadays have forgotten the film The Last Great Disgrace. Nevertheless it was not very long ago when children and adults were kept in conditions worse than that of livestock meant for slaughter. That Henrietta’s oldest daughter was kept in such conditions, and probably died due to her poor treatment and likely status as a test subject, after her mother donated cells that would eventually become a multi-million dollar industry, it is everything wrong in our world in one contrast.

Many may find the family’s anger incomprehensible, or sympathize that it is a wound just not worth licking. Yet when we are loved, as Henrietta was, we are not forgotten. Henrietta’s daughter Deborah thought of her mother every day until she died. To her Henrietta was not just some trivia aside in a textbook. She was an irreplaceable loss.

We should all be remembered by how we were loved.

“The Immortal Life..” deserves its place in the medical canon. It is not an easy read. It is not necessarily graphic but it’s not afraid of very harsh truths and realities.

Nothing in this world occurs in a vacuum.

 

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