The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot is an excellent book about Henrietta Lacks from whom a very widely used cell line, the HeLa came from, her descendents and the role of science in US.

Skloot learned of the cell line in a biology class in her teens and wondered where they came from. The HeLa cells are a line of cancer cells that will endlessly divide and that are incredibly vigorous. HeLa is in fact so dynamic that it often contaminates other cell lines.

Lacks was a black American descended from slaves who moved from Virginia to Baltimore in the middle of the 20th century, moving with her family as jobs opened up there. After having 5 children Sacks then went on to get cervical cancer. She died after getting treatment in 1951 at the age of 31. Her cells were sampled and then were distributed around the world because of their remarkable durability.

Skloot weaves together the story of the biology and how cells are used with the tale of Lacks herself and her children. Skloot had a lot of contact with Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta’s children. Their story is one that appears to be fairly typical of many African-Americans. They moved to the city for jobs and then the jobs went, leaving them poorly educated and suffering discrimination and then falling into poverty and crime.

The scientific story of the cells is also well told, interspersed in the story of the Lacks. Skloots writes about how the cells were found at Johns Hopkins and were used by George Gey as they would stay alive while most other human cells wouldn’t. The cells would go on to greatly aid medicine. Money would be made by selling the cells, but none would be received by the Lacks family. It’s interesting to note that this is the case for all cells that are taken from anyone today too.

The book is a little like Michael Lewis’s excellent book The Blind Side in the way that a factual story about the science and cells is made more memorable and interesting by writing about the people and the social issues involved. Skloot also writes really well. This is a book that is well worth reading for anyone interested at all in science and the US.

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