The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


For decades after Henrietta Lacks' death, her seemingly immortal cells have continued to reproduce. A young and vibrant wife and mother, Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her abnormal cells, known in the scientific community as HeLa, proved extraordinarily useful as well as lucrative to medical science. Before HeLa, human cell cultures quickly died. Hers did not. They continue to generate millions of dollars in profit. Lacks' heirs have never seen a penny from her cells. The book includes excellent and generous notes; Rebecca Skloot has carefully documented her story, the story of her cells, and the ongoing saga of the surviving family.


A poor African American tobacco farmer with a houseful of children, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins physicians in hopes of eliminating her cervical cancer. Although treatment at the charity hospital for nonwhite patients was initiated, the aggressive cancer did not respond. The plan of care was appropriate to the time, but the disease had advanced too far to stop its growth. Lacks died, with severe radiation burns. She left husband David, her children, a large extended family, and a sample of her extraordinary tissue.

The first portion of the book, titled “Life,” is not about the cells but about the person. Lacks was a tiny woman, just five feet tall. Her photograph, displayed on the book's dust cover, shows a happy, vital lady with her hands posed confidently on her hips. Although she had only a sixth- or seventh-grade education, she was the person who discovered the “knot” in her cervix. Although she was barely thirty, her life had already been a chronicle of pain. Her mother died when she was a child, which caused her and her siblings to be distributed among relatives to be raised. She milked cows, worked in the tobacco fields, and endured the stifling summer heat in tiny Clover, Virginia (Audrey, 2010).

Even though science is her professional specialty, Skloot does not limit her account to the story of the HeLa cells themselves. She thickens the scientific account skillfully with a real-life story. She demands that the reader first know the woman from whom the cells were removed. As Lacks lay buried for decades, so did the human source of the vital material that proved to be such a scientific bonanza? Skloot ushers Lacks from behind the curtain of anonymity — the cells had been attributed for years to a number of fictitious persons (Helen Lane, Helen Larson). The reader walks with Lacks through her childhood, her marriage and motherhood (including the story of an institutionalized epileptic daughter who died shortly after Lacks), her relationships, and, finally, her horrendous death. The HeLa cells are no longer a disembodied scientific curiosity; they have coalesced into a palpable person. The reader comes to know Lacks.

The second part of the book, “Death,” narrates Lacks' second life: the amazing survival of her cells. A riveting section concerns what happened just after her ...
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