The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rachel Walden — September 10, 2010

cover image for the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksEarlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a talk by Rebecca Skloot, author of recently published book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, Black woman whose cervical cancer cells were taken in the course of her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. Her cells were the first “immortal” cells — cells kept alive in culture – and went on to be widely used in medical research.

Henrietta’s cells were used in the development of the polio vaccine, were sent up in early space missions, and are mentioned in tens of thousands of research papers.

Rebecca Skloot’s book chronicles the history of Henrietta Lacks and her cells (dubbed “HeLa” cells), as well as Skloot’s  journey uncovering the story.

Lacks and her family never knew about the vast body of research that was being conducted using the cells, or even that the cells had been taken and used for research at all.  She and her family never benefited financially from the selling of HeLa cells. While Henrietta is long dead, her children and grandchildren still struggle to get medical care, and do not have health insurance.

In the course of her talk, Skloot read snippets of the book and discussed questions of ethics, race and class raised by the story. She talked about whether the family should be compensated, the kind of medical care Henrietta received in John Hopkins’s “colored” ward,  and the past and current use of cells and tissue from people’s biopsies and other procedures for later medical research (which may make money for biotechnology corporations). It was really interesting, and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in these issues.

Skloot has established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to fund scholarships and medical care for members of the Lacks family. The text of an interview earlier this year with Skloot on NPR’s Fresh Air is available here.

5 responses to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

  1. The women of Baltimore Hebrew Cong., a reformed Jewish Cong. would love to have Ms. Rebecca Skloot come a speak to us. Ms. Skloot’s book is the book of all times with a message to all people. I loved this book and could not put it down. My telephone number is 410-504-5840.

  2. While the book itself charmed me, the afterword scared me. Apparently, “there are a growing number of activists—ethicists, lawyers, doctors and patients—arguing cases and pushing for new regulations that would grant people the right to control their own tissues.”

    Here’s my problem with that: after living over twenty years with multiple sclerosis, I can tell you that as much as I would like the right to control my own tissues, I have made the painful discovery that my tissues have a mind of their own. Without medical intervention, my T-cells would continue to attack the cells in my central nervous system, and I’d be out of luck.

    Maybe these people complaining about their rights are still healthy. I have news for them. “Their own tissues” are going to betray them some day. And where’s the first place they will turn? They won’t turn to their lawyer. They will turn to their doctor.

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