The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks is one of the most important people that you’ve never heard of. She died of cervical cancer in 1951. At the time scientists were struggling to keep cells alive outside of a human body for a more than a few days. But a sample of Lacks’ cancer cells (known as HeLa) survived, and multiplied. And scientists continue to use HeLa to this day. Experiments done on these cells led to some of the most important developments in medicine; the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilisation to name but a few.
This isn’t really a sciencey book though. This is about the woman behind the cells, and her surviving family. The Lacks’ were an extremely poor black family, they farmed tobacco to begin with, then Day Lacks (Henrietta’s husband) started working in a steel plant. Day and Henrietta were cousins, and she was 14 when she gave birth to their first child. He left school in the fourth grade (10yrs), she in the sixth (12yrs). When Day found out about Henrietta’s cells he probably didn’t know what a cell was.
She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few major hospitals that would treat black patients, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During one of her treatments the doctor took a sample of her cells and sent them to Dr George Guy who was trying to keep cells alive in petri dishes with little success. Hela cells were so successful he began sending them to colleagues to use for there experiments. Guy never patented them, and soon a company set up selling the cells. In 1951, a doctor did not have to ask your permission to take a sample. And the Lacks family did not find out about the cells until 1973.
Henrietta was a black woman born of slavery an share-cropping who fled north for prosperity, only to have her cells used as a tool by white scientists without her consent.
After Henrietta died, her cousin and husband moved in to help raise the kids while Day worked two jobs. Ethel beat the children, and Galen sexually assaulted Deborah (Henrietta’s younger daughter). Life after she died sounds pretty bleak, and in many ways that’s probably why they became so incensed at the thought of their mother’s cells being stolen and sold. All the children had health problems from childhood and into adulthood ranging from hearing loss, diabetes, stress, heart problems etc Deborah, in particular, suffered from stress. Convincing herself she would also die from the cancer that killed her mother, and dealing with a con artist trying to get money from the family over the cells.
Sonny had a quintuple bypass in 2003, when he was fifty-six years old- the last thing he remembered before falling unconscious under the anesthesia was a doctor standing over him saying his mother’s cells were one of the most important things that had ever happened to medicine. Sonny woke up more than $125,000 in debt because he didn’t have health insurance to cover the surgery.
Rebecca Skloot, developed a close friendship with Deborah and founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She does a great job of telling a confusing story which spanned over 5 decades and weaves together science and emotion. It’s a story of great scientific development, and societal neglect of poor black people in America. A very interesting read.