The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Suzie Eisfelder

There are times when I’m glad I started blogging so early. In this case it meant I was on Twitter when Rebecca Skloot started talking about the book she’d written. I didn’t get around to buying in 2010 when it was published and that is my regret. But while we were on holiday in Shepparton I took five minutes in an op shop and recognised the book immediately. It promptly became mine and I was very excited to read it.

Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American when she was diagnosed with cancer. She was married with children, dedicated to her family, and she was living in segregated America. There was a hospital specially for African-Americans, but it made little difference, treatment for cancer was rudimentary and often didn’t help. She died not knowing she was starting to change medical science.

In those days scientists couldn’t get cells to reproduce for more than a few hours. They harvested some cells from Henrietta Lacks cancer and quickly discovered they reproduced really well. Some of those cells are still alive today. What they didn’t do was ask permission. And although they did ask permission of Henrietta’s husband when she died, they only asked permission to do an autopsy and casually took more cells.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells have continued to live and multiply. They have changed medical science completely. Thanks to her cells we now have a vaccine for polio, gene mapping, and IVF, among other things. But she’s also changed many other things about science including how permission is sought before collection.

This book talks about a few things. It details the story of how Skloot finally tracked down Henrietta Lacks’ family and why they didn’t want to talk to anyone else. They’ve been treated terribly by scientists and the media, it’s entirely due to Skloot’s persistence and interest in sharing the Lacks’ family story correctly that got her interviews with the family. It’s very important all of these details are in this book, we need to know how people feel when we talk about them in public.

There is not enough about Henrietta Lacks as a person. I love reading biographies, learning about the person and their life. But one thing that was really lacking in my reading was biographies about normal people. You know, those people who haven’t done anything big, they’re just average. And that’s Henrietta Lacks. Her cells have done so many big things that sometimes their accomplishments overshadow the person. I was very excited to read about her as a person, but I’d like more. Something I discovered tonight when looking for a listing on Booktopia is that there is a more recent book written about Henrietta. This one is by her grandson. It is now on my wish list and one day will be gracing my bookshelves. If you look at the listing you’ll see Henrietta’s cells on the front cover.

Also in this book is how appallingly medical science have treated not just Henrietta Lacks, but also her family. One of those medical interactions was a miscommunication. The young medical person had little English and didn’t understand how to ask for blood. She gave the impression that the blood she’d be taking from Henrietta’s children would be analysed to see if they had cancer, rather than being taken for further research. This has changed, now they have to be more precise when asking for blood and explain what it’s for. In those days they didn’t and African-Americans got the thin end of the stick and weren’t able to stick up for their rights. One other thing is that the cells were labelled HeLa and the name associated with those letters became Helen Lane. It’s a gross breach of her rights. This mislabelling was eventually corrected.

I really enjoyed reading about Henrietta Lacks, the person. I loved finding out her dedication to family. She had some family members move to her area. She made them stay with her (and her family) while they found their feet. She even took them around on public transport until they knew their way around. That sort of dedication to family is something I loved reading about. I’d love to find out more about her, as there was a lot I felt to be missing from this book.

I thoroughly recommend this book. Yes, there is a lot of science in it and I didn’t always understand it, but the problem is me and not the book. It’s a good read and I often found it hard to put down, often reading far later than I should have…sleep is still important. If you’d like to look at the book you can find it here.

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