Chances are you have never heard of Henrietta Lacks — however, living in the western world she will have (in some form or fashion) touched your life — and those around you — without your knowledge.
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 and grew up poor in southern Virginia. She died at the young age of 31 from an aggressive cervical cancer, leaving behind a husband and five young children. In a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, that was ten years in the making, the author — Rebecca Skloot — chronicles Henrietta’s short life and the immortal legacy that she left behind.
After reporting to the Johns Hopkins “coloured” ward with an unknown ailment, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and cells from her cervix were removed for analysis without her knowledge (as was common practice back then). In those days, it was very difficult to keep cells alive once removed from the body; however, not only were Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa cells — after the first two initials in her first and last names) the first to grow in culture, they continued to reproduce at an amazing rate and would go on to change the face of medicine. The author says that laid end to end, her cells would circle the earth three times.
Due to her cells unique ability to reproduce so prolifically, they enabled scientists to use them in various experiments — and not all of them ethical. Henrietta’s cells were traded and eventually sold (spawning a multi-million dollar industry) all without her or her families’ knowledge. HeLa cells helped developed the polio vaccine, cancer drugs, helped lead to advances in gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, cloning and have been sent to space. However, given the importance of her cells, her family has never been compensated, nor are they able to afford health care.
This is a tale about ethics, history, medical science, injustice, family and the loss of same. It is the story of a woman’s cells taken from her body (without consent) and the importance of these cells to medicine as we know it today — yet she has remained unknown to the majority of us — and also about her families struggle to make sense of it all. The fate that her young children suffered following her death is heartbreaking.
Perhaps in another author’s hands, this would just be another dry and boring work of medical journalism, but Rebecca Skloot has created a masterpiece of narrative non-fiction which will resonate long after you have turned the last page.
I cannot recall the last time that a book has touched me this deeply. Once you have read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you will want to tell everyone who crosses your path (as I did) about this amazing woman and her immortal legacy.
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