The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has received lots of wonderful press and will probably appear on many “best” lists at the end of the year. There’s a good reason: it’s quite special; an engaging human interest story that combines personal history and medical history. Henrietta Lacks, in case you haven’t picked up on the press for Rebecca Skloot’s book, was an African-American woman living in the Baltimore area, whose cancerous cells, by their amazing replicative abilities, helped drive advances in medical science via cell research.
All of our lives are better because of Henrietta Lacks’s unknowing contribution. That’s the problem; neither Lacks nor her family were aware that she was donating her cells. it wasn’t until 20 years after her death that her daughter discovered–by accident–that her mother was famous as the HeLa culture, found in labs all over the world, a source of profit for the companies that manufactured it, and the subject of conferences and controversies.
Skloot makes all of the science accessible, introducing us to the scientists she met during her research and their conflicted relationship with HeLa. Beyond the science, she tells the story of the Lacks family and their struggle to understand and come to terms with the appropriation of Henrietta’s cells. In addition, Skloot tells us how she got the story, overcoming the resistance of the Lacks family to talk to yet another intrusive white person about Henrietta. The combination of science, family history, and Skloot’s personal involvement works on all levels. It’s a wonderful tribute to a woman who’s been anonymous for far too long.
The heart of the story is the issues it deals with: medical research ethics, racism, cancer, and poverty. Skloot makes these isues personal and compelling. There was no informed consent in the early 1950s, when Henrietta’s cancerous cells were appropriated by a researcher. Skloot writes about the debate over the ownership of human tissue; despite the myriad of forms we sign in doctors’ offices and hospitals, you may be surprised with what she reveals.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Rebecca Skloot is the daughter of another wonderful writer: Floyd Skloot. I particularly recommend In the Shadow of Memory, a wonderful memoir–in-essays about illness (his own). Skloot is one of the most elegant, graceful writers I know.