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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The award-winning book by Rebecca Skloot is a powerful reminder of the reality of injustice.

For readers not much interested in science and medicine, the concept of Rebecca Skloot’s first book might seem a bore, the text merely one to trudge through as required reading for a biology class. At its essence, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the HeLa cell line and about a tissue sample, taken in 1951, that led to extraordinary breakthroughs in medicine. The HeLa cells helped scientists create a polio vaccine, study cancer and viruses, and develop advances in gene mapping and cloning. Amazing stuff, we might conclude, good reading for a small population of scientifically minded people.

Except: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been named one of the best books of 2010 by countless publications, and critics have lauded Skloot, who will no doubt receive nominations for national-level book awards. The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in mid-2010, and HBO is planning a based-on-the-book movie, with Oprah Winfrey producing.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is clearly about more than the history of a cell line and its influence on medicine and science. Indeed, the book argues—richly, compellingly—that behind every scientific discovery is a story worth telling. And the story of the HeLa cell line, a tissue sample turned to gold, is a powerful tale of injustice, race, class, belief, loss and reconciliation. Not only for the scientifically minded, then, Skloot’s book is for readers longing to seek justice, for readers who love mercy, for readers challenged by Christ’s call to serve “the least of these.”  

The book’s namesake, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. She had five children: her eldest, Elsie, was institutionalized for “idiocy”; her youngest, Joe, was not yet a year old when his mother died. Without her knowledge or consent, doctors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—where she was being treated for cancer—removed a tissue sample from her cervix, and cells from this sample were delivered to the lab of scientist George Gey. Gey was trying to grow cancer cells—a means by which to study the causes and find a cure for the deadly disease—but until 1951 had he been unsuccessful in his endeavors. For some reason, though, Lacks’ cells continued to replicate outside her body, and at impressive speed. Soon, Gey was shipping test tubes of Lacks’ cells all over the world for other scientists to study, and within a few years, HeLa cells were being marketed by businesses who gained millions from the continually replicating revenue source.

Meanwhile, Henrietta Lacks’ descendants received nothing. Nothing but grief, that is. While their mother’s cells contributed to medical breakthroughs and made significant fortunes for several companies, Lacks’ husband and children lived in poverty, unable to afford medical care at the very hospital—Johns Hopkins—that had first treated their mother. Until the early 1970s, they also lived unaware that Henrietta’s cells were being studied by scientists worldwide. When Lacks' descendants discovered their mother’s role in history, they were given a confusing morass of information by people who disregarded them because they were poor, African-American and uneducated. So while Henrietta’s children knew their mother’s cells continued to replicate and were helping scientists find medical cures, they didn’t know what that meant. (Henrietta’s daughter believed her mother had been fully cloned, for example, and copies of Henrietta were walking the streets of London.) The Lacks family was easily exploited by those wanting more information about Henrietta’s past, or more details about Henrietta’s illness, or more tissue samples from Henrietta’s descendants.

The Lacks family story is the most compelling part of Skloot’s book. Skloot masterfully gives presence to the obscure woman whose short life—and death—subsequently transformed 20th-century science. More than merely a tissue sample, Henrietta Lacks was a complex character shaped by a culture still mired in segregation, a victim of racism and poverty, and a woman who loved being a mother to her five children, all who grew up knowing little about the person who nurtured them into being. Reading the story of Henrietta Lacks should arguably inform our understanding of scientific and medical research, especially that done with human subjects whose own lives, and life stories, reflect what Christians know to be the unique imprint of God.

Equally striking, the narrative of Henrietta Lacks’ cell line—and of her family—starkly shows the ways institutional racism and sexism, class and poverty, continue to plague our culture. Because Henrietta was a poor African-American woman, she did not receive proper medical treatment for her cancer, and doctors felt justified to take tissue samples without her consent or knowledge. Scientists also showed disregard for her family in stunning ways, causing the family to suspect white people—including Skloot, at least initially—of wanting to exploit them. (The long and sober history of medical testing on African-Americans, including the infamous Tuskegee research, fanned their suspicion.)

As a people called to do justice, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds Christians there is plenty work yet to be done. Skloot’s book clearly shows what happens in places, and to people, when there is no justice. Although it would be easy to claim our country has changed, and that racism no longer exists, Skloot’s narrative reveals the ways race discrimination has followed us into the 21st century. The wounds caused by racism in earlier times also run deep, affecting the lives of racism’s victims (and perpetrators) in profound ways. Even more effectively, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shows how poverty itself, especially when coupled with race discrimination, disenfranchises people, rendering them powerless to claim what should fundamentally be theirs: in this case, a mother’s heritage, her story, her very DNA, encased in cells shipped all over the world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does not claim to be a Christian book: Skloot, an admitted agnostic, writes sparingly about the Lacks’s Christian faith. Yet, perhaps unwittingly, Skloot has created a profoundly religious book, one that should challenge believers to seek justice, even in the most unlikely places. Skloot’s decade-long research journey itself offers a significant example for what it might mean to work sacrificially for justice: by doggedly telling the Lacks story and by building right relationships with the Lacks family, Skloot brings a sliver of reconciliation and peace to a broken family and their silent ancestor.

Fundamentally, though, Skloot’s book speaks to readers because it does so much more than explain the HeLa cell line. Instead, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explores what it means to be human, formed not only by the cellular structure that gives us life, but by the experiences that shape us into being.

1 Comment

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Jamierawrjamie reviewed…

It made me so happy to see this review. I heard about this book last year during an interview with Rebecca Skloot on BookTv and then read and loved it. Henrietta's life was so interesting and then after reading I felt smarter with all the information about science I had learned.

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