The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

How does one describe this genre? Is it plain old non-fiction? Because I was firmly a fiction girl but Born to Run, Cinderella Ate My Daughter and now Henrietta Lacks are quickly converting me to this genre. I guess in my mind non-fiction always seemed kinda dry and dull, like a history textbook. Or, overly factual like a Newsweek article. Not what I think of when I picture “curling up with a good book.” But this was really captivating, and made even more interesting by the fact that IT IS REAL. One of my favorite parts about reading is when a book just kind of grabs me by the brain and sucks me into a new world. Or, in the case of non-fiction, a part of the world I had no clue existed. Maybe that’s why I’m crossing over to the non-fiction side… I love a good fiction book but sometimes I want truth.

Ok, deep thoughts on genre aside, let’s talk about Henrietta.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in the early 50’s. The timing of her death was very fortuitous for science, with the cells they harvested from her cancer biopsy becoming the first success in cell culturing. And they quickly became a great success (to quote Borat! Still funny!) Scientists around the world used her cells to develop major medical breakthroughs – vaccines, disease therapies, studying effects of various factors on cells… and they’re still using them today. Her cell line will live forever, which is pretty amazing to think about.

The book chronicled the nitty-gritty sciencey stuff as well as the author’s process in meeting with and getting “in” with the Lacks family. All of the above paragraph was done with out Henrietta’s or the family’s sign off, and learning all of this information affected them in different ways. It’s a really crazy story… In some ways it’s heartbreakingly sad: this woman died a really painful and tragic death, leaving 5 children to grapple with her legacy for years and years. They still are poor and “unable to afford health insurance,” to quote the hook from the front cover. And, there aren’t a lot of answers, even after all the revelations the book and accompanying research provides. It’s also inspiring: despite the circumstances and the hand they were dealt, this poor woman with not even a high school education forever changed the course of scientific/medical research. How’s that for uplifting?

It made me think. It took me beyond what I typically assume I care about and challenged me to question where I stand on issues I never knew existed. Like, when they take a blood sample or a tissue sample, does it cease to be my property? Do I have ownership rights, or can pharma companies profit from findings they might get from pieces of me? Am I entitled to some $$ from that? Or is it all for the greater good? Like if they make a cancer drug from my cells, they’d make money, but also save and improve lives because of my cells. It’s challenging turf.

It also kind of leaves me thinking what is the true value of a life? In this case, Henrietta Lacks’s. I think the most beautiful thing this book did was tell her story. For years she was just “HeLa,” an extraordinary line of cells that enabled unprecedented scientific research. But who was Henrietta, the *person* – the mother, wife, cousin, friend? What was her legacy to her family?

I’m moved. I’m smarter. I’m amazed at human ingenuity and scientific advancement. I’m shocked at our recent past in medical ethics, especially in respect to minorities and vulnerable populations (like prisoners). I’m hopeful that we’ll learn from mistakes of the past with books like this to teach us about what we did.


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