Every ambitious explorer sets out to learn more about the unfamiliar; to chart, mark, and categorize new territory is innate to the quest. History has shown us grand explorations of land, sea, and air in the pursuit of fame and fortune. Yet not every venture is so grandiose, and sometimes such expeditions take on a quieter, nobler tone when mere curiosity steps in and humanity takes over.
Science writer Rebecca Skloot is not an explorer per se, but she certainly found herself navigating foreign fields when she decided to seek out the story behind the cells that revolutionized modern medicine. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the result of Skloot’s unending patience in her search for scientific truth and the hard-won affection of the family behind the legendary HeLa cells.
When the name Henrietta Lacks was briefly mentioned in Skloot’s biology class years ago, her young journalistic wheels began to turn. Skloot’s instructor informed the class that Henrietta died in 1951 from cervical cancer, but before she died, samples of her tumor were taken and cultured. Henrietta’s cells (HeLa is taken from the first two letters of her first and last name) began to reproduce at a startling rate which had never occurred before in a lab setting. This quick reproduction provided scientists with endless possibilities for cellular testing and examination, and as a result Henrietta’s cells have become the “standard laboratory workhorse.”
However, it wasn’t the cells that caught Skloot’s interest. Rather, it was the mysterious Black woman behind them that ultimately set the aforementioned wheels into full motion. “I’ve spent years…wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever – bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine… .”
But to get to the true story of Henrietta Lacks one must first win over the family of Henrietta Lacks, and no doubt this was the most difficult obstacle for Skloot. Kept for years in the dark from any information of their mother’s cells, the Lacks children are reticent to give interviews or even return calls. Repeatedly blindsided by doctors, lawyers, and reporters, the Lacks family collectively tossed years of anger and frustration into a bubbling pot that continues to boil over at the mere mention of HeLa cells. For the Lacks family, HeLa is inextricably bound with intense racial, moral, and economic injustice. Yet somehow Skloot’s persistence paid off, and her earnest intent eventually won over Debra Lacks (Henrietta’s daughter), thus prompting the rest of this profound story.
Encompassing everything from the plantation South to research procedures to cellular biology, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks could have been one laborious read. However, Skloot succeeds in her deft attempt to set the Lacks’ record straight. With a crosscut approach to Henrietta’s cellular and familial evolution, Skloot simplifies the history of HeLa while working the Lacks backstory. Though at times Skloot steps off-trail and gets tangled in the branches of the Lacks family tree, she does manage to stay objective leaving ample room for individual interpretation. Even for those who are not cell savvy, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a sympathetic and interesting journey marked by the tender lives behind the the world’s most important contributor to contemporary medicine.
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-Review by Megan Shaffer
-NYT Book Review Eternal Life By Lisa Margonelli