Friday, February 19, 2010

Book 18, 2010: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The best non-fiction books have a strong narrative thread.

Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin are all superb examples of how non-fiction can be far more enthralling and entertaining than anything found in fiction.

We can now add The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot to that list.

Released earlier this year to critical acclaim, Skloot's book -- years in the preparation -- is part science, part biography and part horror story. At its most basic it is the story of HeLa, a line of cells commonly used in medical research around the world. The cells were taken from a Baltimore woman, Henrietta Lacks, in the 1950s without her knowledge or consent while she was being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The cells proved to be "immortal." Prior to the HeLa cells, all cells removed from a human and placed in culture had quickly died. The cancerous cells removed from Henrietta Lacks did not die.

But Henrietta's cells weren't merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity . . . They kept growing like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on tops of hundreds, accumulating by the millions . . . As long as they had food and warmth, Henriett's cancer cells seemed unstoppable.

Soon Henriett's cells had been shipped to medical laboratories around the world and were widely used in a variety of research. They were flown into space and exposed to nuclear explosions, and ultimately contributed to enormous scientific advances.

But the story of HeLa cells is not merely that of scientific progress. It is also the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family. Her children did not learn that their mother's cells had been taken and had survived or that they were widely used in medical research until decades after Henrietta's death.

The success of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks lies in Skloot's decision to tell the compelling life story of this poor Southern black woman as well as that of her descendants. In many respects, the book is as much about Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, as it is about her mother or the doctors and scientist who appear in these pages.

The horror surfaces in two respects. As an adult, Deborah discovers that she had an older sister who was confined to a mental institution not long before her mother's death. The cruel treatment afforded her sister emerges late in the book and is a haunting and sobering reminder of how poorly people suffering from mental illness or retardation can be treated in America.

Another horrifying aspect of the book is how indifferent science is to the Lacks family and how slow scientists and doctors were -- and continue to be -- in recognizing that the HeLa line of cells came from a fellow human being. Millions of dollars were made through the sale of the HeLa cells, yet Henrietta Lacks' children could not afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book that performs many valuable services. For example, Skloot's afterword explores the use of human tissue in medical research today, indicating that it is still largely unregulated. She has brought a measure of pride and comfort to the Lacks family. But her most valuable contribution is in revealing that the HeLa cells once belonged to a vibrant young woman, who loved to dance and to laugh and who loved her family.

Henrietta Lacks is the silent hero of this story and we all owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for her enduring contribution to medical science.


Skloot will appear at 10 a.m. Friday, March 19 at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. She will join Jason Vuic, author of The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History, and Bethanne Patrick, author of An Uncommon History of Common Things, in a panel presentation, The Uncommon History of Many Things--from Cars to Human Cells.

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