The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
In 1951, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, took a tissue sample from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks. She was indigent, African-American, and weeks from death. The cervical cancer she had been diagnosed with was a particularly virulent form, and Lacks spent her last days in agony. Those HeLa cells, as they came to be known, went on to change medicine, providing endless opportunities for research into cancer, polio, AIDS, and radiation poisoning. Quite a legacy–except for the fact that Lacks knew nothing of the tissue sample taken from her, nor did her family. And that is where the story of Henrietta Lacks becomes tragic and unforgettable.
To be sure, taking the tissue sample did not require Lacks’ permission. But her cells quickly became famous, behaving in a way that no cells ever had before: they survived and reproduced rapidly, making them the most-used cell-line in medical research. Lacks’ cells were the first cells ever mailed by the U.S. Post Office and they are cultured and stored in research labs the world over. In fact, author Rebecca Skloot estimates that nearly 50 million metric tons of the cells have been cultured, becomming a mult-million dollar industry.
Before Henrietta’s cells became immortal, she was mother, sister, wife, and daughter. Her laugh was said to be contagious, and her love of children legendary. As a child she lived on her grandfather’s tobacco farm, but later moved to Baltimore with her husband David “Day” Lacks. Henrietta dressed to the nines when she went out, loved to dance, and favored red lipstick and nail polish. She fed family and friends from a bottomless pot of spaghetti and meatballs. In short, Henrietta Lacks was more than HeLa–she was a flesh and blood woman who loved and lived in the embrace of her family.
Lacks’ family never learned of the HeLa cell line until nearly twenty years after her death–and even then the knowledge was clouded by misunderstanding and emotion. Her children, none of whom had much schooling, did not understand the most basic concepts of biology, and imagined their mother cloned or parts of her living on, enduring even more abuse at the hands of the medical community. When articles appeared about scientists fusing animal cells with HeLa cells, they imagined with horror that their mother was now a mouse-human. It was astounding (and perhaps horribly naive) of me to think that adults in the year 2000 would lack this understanding. The family also became outraged when they learned the cells were bought and sold–and that they never saw a cent of the profits. Indeed, sixty years after Lacks’ death, her family still couldn’t afford basic health care.
Skloot spent ten years writing the book, most of those years cultivating relationships with Lacks’ relatives, especially her daughter Dorothy. Dorothy suffered from high blood pressure, back problems, diabetes, depression, and perhaps bi-polar disorder. She was a handful, but Skloot was never condescending, and almost tender in educating Dorothy about cell structure and reproduction, and modern research science. Memorable also was Johns Hopkins researcher Christoph Lengauer, who brought Dorothy and her brother Zakariyya face-to-face with their mother’s cells in his laboratory; and Paul Lurz, administrator-cum-historian, who respectfully shared with Dorothy the fate of her older sister Elsie, who died in Crownville State Hospital. In a story filled with bad guys, these three were testaments to honesty and character.
I was shocked at the end of Skloot’s book–never saw it coming. The author used some of the book’s profits to set up a scholarship fund for the Lacks family, and in 2011, Sonny Lacks accepted an honorary degree in his mother’s name. A fitting postscript to an American tragedy.