Monday, December 09, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

I can't say that I had intended to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks during the month of December. Back in 2011 Susanne reviewed this book (scroll down to #32) giving it 10 out of 10 stars according to her rating system. I noted it as sounding incredibly interesting and decided that if I ever ran across a copy when browsing bookstores or something I'd pick it up.

One of our neighbors has one of those free "libraries" at the end of their driveway where people are invited to take a book and/or leave a book. On a post-Thanksgiving walk we passed by this neighbor's lending library and, lo and behold, there sat a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I didn't hesitate to snatch it up! Sometimes the wait in reading a book proves worth it and such was the case with this title. I will echo Susanne in saying, "Wow!" Only I'll put it in bold: WOW!

This book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer back in 1951. During the period of her treatment and hospitalization at John Hopkins Hospital, doctors took samples from her cervix and sent them to the hospital's lab. There, Dr. George Gey attempted to grow her cells using the samples provided. Up to this point in history, cells had not been able to be reproduced in a lab setting; the cells always died. In the case of Henrietta's cancerous cells, they not only grew but they did so at a prolific rate. In fact, her cells are still reproducing to this day and are known and referred to as "HeLa cells". Her cells have been used in scientific research for these many decades, being used to help identify diseases, were involved with the atomic bomb, and have even been sent into space. While other human strains of cells have been developed since 1951, none have thrived in the same manner that the HeLa cells have, making Henrietta immortal in some sense of the word.

What makes the story of Henrietta's cells noteworthy? A few things. First and foremost, samples of her cervix were removed and sent to the lab without her permission. While I would say that it is remarkably unclear that Henrietta would have had any objections to this being done, she was not informed and her consent was not obtained. By today's standards, this is a deplorable situation. By 1950 standards, it was par for the course. Her children, however, were raised in our more modern society where permission must be obtained to take samples of any sort from a person's body and/or used in any form or fashion. Up until the 1970's her children (and husband!) were not even made aware of the fact that their mother's cells were growing and being used in science experiments. When they were made aware they were less than pleased. Her childrens' purpose these days is not to make money off of the HeLa cells (although I and others would argue it would be their due according to present day practices) but to let the world know who Henrietta Lacks was so that she can receive due honor and recognition for her contribution to science.

The other interesting angle on this story is that while the rest of the world has been curious as to the origins of the HeLa cells, so have her children been. Henrietta died when her children were very young (her youngest being but a few months old) and so they really never knew their mother. Her daughter Deborah is featured heavily in this book as having provided much information to author/reporter Rebecca Skloot. Deborah spent most of her life wondering what it was her mother had ultimately died of as no one had ever told her; it was not talked about. Henrietta kept the diagnosis of cancer a secret and the family was left in a state of curious chaos as a result of her silence on this matter of her health. There is a prevalent opinion in the family that John Hopkins Hospital killed their mother by experimenting on her body (i.e., over radiating her, causing her abdomen to be burned black). Unfortunately there is reason for them to speculate that Hopkins mistreated and harmed their mother as back in the 1880's and first half of the 1900's surgeons and scientist routinely "stole" black people and experimented on their bodies, deeming them to be of lesser worth to society. These activities are deplorable and it is very hard for those of us with modern sensitivities to even imagine that such things occurred! Yet they did, and the issues of race and segregation also make this book a thought provoking read as well as a sickening one as it is a very painful thing to consider how white surgeons treated their black patients (that is, if they agreed to treat them at all!).

I think Skloot presents the facts of Henrietta, her cells and her family in a straight forward manner which "simply" educates the reader without attempting to persuade them of something. Never at any moment did I feel that Skloot was trying to train my thoughts in any particular direction. The book reads very much as an informative explanation as to the history of HeLa cells and the person they originated from. It is an emotional read by its very nature but the emotions are not provided for you. You simply cannot help but feel something as you read along. This is the mark of a good work of non-fiction in my humble estimation. I much prefer it when non-fiction writers present the facts (tastefully) and allow me to make up my own mind on the issues. Skloot kindly allowed me the freedom to discern and I appreciate that.

Now, I wouldn't peg The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as your typical Christmas read but when some books land on your lap you make the time to read them and I'm glad to have made the time for this title. One of my friends (who is a science-y major at our local university) saw the book sitting on my couch when she came over this past weekend. She pounced on it excitedly telling me that she had just recently done some experiments in the lab using HeLa cells and had recently become aware of Henrietta Lacks and her story. I'll be passing this book along to her to read next. Her background should make this read even more fascinating than it already is!

I feel kind of funny saying that I would recommend this book to other readers. Non-fiction reads either strike a chord with individuals or they do not. You'll have to make up your own mind about this book. In my case, I'm very glad for Susanne's recommendation which caused me to learn more about Henrietta Lacks. I'll not soon forget her name or contribution to science and society. Nor should I.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

My dh has worked with HeLa cells! I've had this one from the library, but I couldn't get into it at the time. I do intend to read it, though, and your high opinion of it reminds me that I need to make it sooner rather than later.

Annette Whipple said...

I just learned of the little libraries recently. :)

Wow. Hmm. And I don't know!! This sounds incredibly interesting. I will keep it on my radar.

Tonia said...

That sounds so interesting! It's hard to imagine that such a practice was ever normal. Checking my library for a copy.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Great review! I listened to this on audio two summers ago and was wowed by it. SO GOOD!

Diary of an Autodidact said...

This whole story is fascinating. I haven't read this book, but the case is pretty well known as an intersection of law and medicine.

For those unfamiliar with both abusive medical practices and the sordid history of experiments on African Americans, I would recommend looking up the Tuskegee syphilis experiment - which didn't end until 1972.

Barbara H. said...

I've seen lots of people recommend this highly, but it didn't sound like something I'd be interested in before now - you provided some interesting information I had not seen elsewhere.

Susanne said...

I'm so glad you liked the book, Carrie. The story fascinated me.

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