With author Rebecca Skloot and the family of Henrietta Lacks in town for an event at the Imperial Theater (February 8 at 7:00 p.m.), it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the Medical Examiner’s review of her book in our August 6, 2010 issue (below).
Have you ever heard of Henrietta Lacks? Perhaps, but probably not.
Her somewhat obscure place on the pages of medical history should not be misinterpreted: the story of Henrietta Lacks is a complicated and riveting true story of, as Publishers Weekly says, “medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, [and] poverty,” and that’s just scratching the surface of this truly fascinating and important story.
How important? Every person walking around without cancer owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Henrietta Lacks. Polio couldn’t have been cured without her. AIDS research is happening with help from Henrietta Lacks.
Don’t get the wrong idea: it’s not like she worked in some research lab or something. In fact, she died young, a victim of cervical cancer. It was in death that she made her immortal contribution to medical science.
And we’re not using that word “immortal” metaphorically: there are billions of Henrietta’s cells thriving and multiplying this very second in labs around the world. They’re called HeLa cells in her honor.
Scientists had been trying for decades to keep cell cultures alive in laboratories for research purposes, but sooner or later they always died — until Henrietta, that is.
Her cells multiplied prolifically, and are still doing so today. They’re apparently immortal.
Even though her family refused permission for the routine original sample, it was taken anyway. The theft was something like stealing a rusted-out Yugo, only to discover it contained billions of dollars worth of diamonds in its trunk.
Henrietta’s cells were an inexhaustible supply of revenue to the tune of billions of dollars. But her family was never informed, nor were any funds ever shared with them.
The story of the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks then, is more than just an inspiring story of a medical oddity that by chance contributed to mankind’s knowledge of diseases and their cures; no, it became a moral story, a true life lesson in medical ethics, born of the racial climate of the era (she died in 1951).
Skloot’s account of the entire story is scrupulously researched, yet reads like a novel — an engrossing and heartbreaking novel. Highly recommended.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, 324 pages, published in February 2010 by Crown.