Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2011. Print.
This book brings to life the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cancer cells have contributed to the polio vaccine, cancer research, genetic mapping, and any number of biomedical/science studies since the 1950s. Skloot conveys the science in the book and the importance of “HeLa,” the name for the cancer cells that have meant so much to research in the biomedical/science community, but she also chronicles the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the people in the science community who advanced the culturing of HeLa cells for biomedical research.
In writing the story of Henrietta Lacks and the science behind HeLa, Skloot made a decision that profoundly affected the book’s shape and reach, a decision that brought a humanizing element to the science. She didn’t just report about the cells and their importance to the biomedical community; she set out to tell the story of the woman named Henrietta Lacks, the family that didn’t even know about the scientific use of these cells until decades later, and the impact on their lives of that discovery. Because Skloot focuses on the Lacks family and their reactions to the science community that ignored the woman behind the cells for so long, the book addresses the ethics of informed consent relating to the scientific use of human tissue, the medical and social mistreatment of African Americans during that period, and the need to atone for the social injustice through bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family to the world. It’s interesting to note that in the prologue, Skloot mentions that one of the book’s editors had wanted to remove the Lacks family from its pages, a perpetuation of the social wrongs the family had endured for decades.
Skloot takes a complex subject that could’ve been mired in scientific terminology and makes it a human story by showing the confusion, anger, disappointment, and life-affirming joy in discovery of a real family. It is this element that makes the book so readable. We empathize with Deborah Lacks, the daughter who yearns to know more about her mother and family, the anger of Zakariyya Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest child, who feels the righteous indignity of his mother’s anonymity in the science community for so many years, the wonder of Lawrence Lacks, the oldest of Henrietta’s children, upon hearing about the way his mother’s cells have advanced the research into the treatment of blindness.
Skloot moves the story in a nonlinear narrative: the prologue that shows how she first learned about cells associated with Henrietta Lacks from her Biology professor at a community college, the diagnosis of the tumor in Henrietta Lacks’ cervix in 1951, the background and history of Henrietta and her parents from 1920 to 1942 in Clover, Virginia, the unsuccessful radium treatments on Henrietta after her tumor was diagnosed, the samples that became the first cultured HeLa cells in 1951, Skloot’s initial contact with a professor of gynecology named Roland Patillo, to try to get information about the Lacks family in 1999, the spreading of Henrietta’s cancer in 1951, Skloot’s trip to locate the Lacks family in southern Virginia in 1999, and back again to 1951 to show the cancer’s ravaging effect on Henrietta’s body leading up to her death.
Skloot weaves in the science of the HeLa cells, how they are cultured, their many uses in biomedical research, Dr. George Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek, who cultured the first HeLa cells, the contamination of other cells and the resulting damage to research by the HeLa strain, the forming of hybrids between human and animal cells in research, and laws and ethics associated with informed consent and the use of human tissue in biomedical research.
She exposes the history of unethical and discriminatory practices by doctors and medical researchers in working with African American patients: Tuskegee syphilis studies on African American men where patients were left untreated to see the effects of the disease in the name of research, the needless hysterectomies conducted on African American women to stop them from having more babies, the lack of research money devoted to sickle-cell anemia, a disease prevalent in the African American community, and the refusal to provide medical care or attention altogether for many African Americans on the part of doctors and hospitals.
This book is most effective in rendering the perspective from the Lacks family, the moral injustice of having Henrietta Lacks be completely ignored by the biomedical community for so long, the suspicious nature of the family members at the people who want information about the HeLa cells without acknowledging the life of Henrietta Lacks, and their gratitude at finally seeing a writer who wants to tell Henrietta’s story and her remarkable legacy.