Book explores woman behind HeLa cells and unethical science that created them

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Henrietta Lacks grew up in a slave-era cabin with eight siblings, married her cousin and had five children. She died in 1951, at 31, as baseball-sized malignant tumors preyed upon her vital organs. When doctors performed an autopsy, so many small tumors had metastasized to her other organs that “it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls.” Ironically, it was Henrietta’s cancer that both killed her and guaranteed her a sort of immortality.

In an era when doctors still gave hysterectomies to black women without consent, a Johns Hopkins researcher named George Gey scraped some cells from a tumor in Henrietta’s cervix, dropped them in some culture medium and watched them grow – and grow and grow. 

Dubbed HeLa cells, they were the first cells capable of surviving in culture for more than a few days, doubling every 24 hours. Without Henrietta’s consent and without the knowledge of her family, Henrietta’s cells were eventually mass-produced, shipped through the mail to scientists around the world and used for everything from developing a polio vaccine to testing cosmetics. HeLa cells are still used today.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, the K-State Book Network’s common book for this semester, combines science and history with a literary flair that results in a highly accessible read. Skloot eases the reader into the story, telescoping in on the events of Henrietta’s life before broadening her scope to describe the revolutionary science that developed from the tumors that killed her. 

Though Henrietta’s life is fascinating, especially the somewhat gruesome details of her family history, Skloot’s description of the scientists and researchers who used her cells is irresistible. 

On the one hand, these white scientists – especially Dr. Gey, who orchestrated the mass production and distribution of HeLa cells – exploited Henrietta’s ignorance to profit from the cancer that killed her. Many of the doctors and scientists Skloot profiles are, at best, callous toward their research subjects and, at worst, actively deceive and abuse them. But Dr. Gey is an interesting and compelling character, an almost literary combination of tinkerer and mad scientist that results in a man who smokes cigars, eats raw oysters in his garage and sneakily defends Henrietta’s right to privacy.

The magic of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” lies in Skloot’s literary craftsmanship. Part history and part journalism, with a touch of fiction thrown in, the book juggles reconstructed scenes of family life and laboratory research with easily digestible science and medical history. 

Skloot describes several larger-than-life characters like “the Greeter” (a pudgy, simple white man with a red bike who stands on the same street corner in a rural Virginia town every day waving at passersby) and an increasingly crackpot scientist who was fond of eugenics and famously claimed ownership of an immortal chicken heart. Meanwhile, mysterious events seem to surround the HeLa cells and those who research the Lacks family, almost as if Henrietta herself lives on, protecting her legacy.

But the book explores deeper themes as well: incest, violence and abuse; the generations-long poverty of Henrietta’s family, who were descended from both black slaves and their white slaveowners; and the disturbing history of the exploitation of black people, poor people and prison inmates for medical research.

A significant portion of the book concerns Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and her search for the truth about her mother’s life. Born only a year before Henrietta was hospitalized, Deborah never knew her mother – or that Henrietta had another daughter who died long before Deborah learned about her. Deborah is traumatized by the circumstances of her life and her family until Skloot patiently, layer by layer, unearths the Lacks family history. 

I occasionally had qualms about Skloot’s descriptions, which sometimes rang a little false. For example, Henrietta’s childhood sounds rather idealized, especially compared to a similar description of someone else’s childhood later in the book. 

However, keep in mind that Skloot interviewed surviving members of Henrietta’s family who have a very personal stake in the story, and it is understandable that she wrote cautiously about a woman they remember so fondly.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is an engrossing read, both the chronicle of a rather complicated family and a fascinating collection of characters and anecdotes, with some highly digestible science thrown in. 5 out of 5 stars.

Katie Goerl is a graduate student in history. Please send comments to edge@kstatecollegian.com.

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