The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Sophie Bierly

The Crown Publishing Group

February 2010

Born in 1920 in Clover, Virginia, Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors. In 1951, she developed a strangely aggressive cancer, and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a tissue sample without her knowledge. She died without knowing that her cells would become immortal—the first to grow and survive indefinitely in culture. HeLa cells, as they are called, were essential in developing the polio vaccine. They have aided in the development of in-vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping, and have helped us to better understand the workings of cancer and innumerable viruses. Even today, HeLa is the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide, bought and sold by the billions. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they would weigh more than fifty million metric tons—more than a hundred Empire State Buildings.

After learning about the HeLa cell line in high school, Rebecca Skloot became consumed by curiosity about the woman behind the cells. During the decade it took her to chase down and chronicle this remarkable story, she journeyed from state-of-the-art scientific laboratories to the tobacco fields of southern Virginia to East Baltimore, where the Lacks family lives today. She spent years winning the trust of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who longed to know more about her mother and to better understand the science behind her cells, which often seemed more like science fiction. With this book, we too become immersed in the story of the Lacks family, and are shocked to discover that Henrietta’s husband and children did not find out about her “immortality,” or the enormous profits her cells had generated, until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using blood samples from her family in research without informed consent. The family had grown up surrounded by preaching, faith healing, and voodoo; suddenly they were plunged into a world of arcane-sounding science, wrestling with feelings of pride, betrayal, and fear. While biotech companies had made millions selling HeLa, many of Henrietta’s descendants could not even afford health insurance.

In THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, Rebecca Skloot brilliantly weaves together the Lackses’ story—past and present—with the story of the first culturing of HeLa cells, the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, and the birth of bioethics. A combination of investigative reporting, crystalline science writing, and riveting narrative, the book leaves as indelible an impression as Henrietta’s cells.

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