The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

immortalMy first experience of social injustice was when, as a young contract marketing personnel for a British pharmaceutical company, I was not allowed to take my lunch or break inside the office premises on the assumption that I might be held responsible for missing personal effects of the regular (non-contract) employees of the company. With nowhere to go after eating lunch outside, my colleagues and I were made to sit in the open-air visitor’s area beside the guard house where we were unwillingly exposed to the fumes coming from each car entering the facility. While it was misunderstanding on my part and deception on my employer’s why I became a contract employee at all, I didn’t have to be very intelligent to understand that I was being discriminated. I’m sure that Henrietta Lacks felt the same when she entered the colored-only exam room of Johns Hopkins hospital to get treated.

This is a true story of how a 31 year-old married with children African American woman in the 50s died without knowing that she will advance the progress of medicine through her immortal cancer cells. It’s also the story of her surviving children and how each struggled with two things for most of their lives:

1) the consequences of losing their mother to misdiagnosed cervical cancer;

2) the knowledge that some part of her is still alive and commercially traded (sold per vial) 20 years after the fact.

Rebecca Skloot is probably one of the best non-fiction writers I’ve ever read simply because of her ability to disappear in order to observe her subjects. In this novel, they come alive in the pages by speaking their own language and displaying their own humor, thanks to Skloot. She’s also a very good researcher of medical history, inserting stories from the annals with a clear objective: to make us aware that our doctors are not as pure and impeccable as their white coats and that there is a darker history. Another thing that I admire from Skloot’s writing is her ability to jump from one time to another without confusing the reader, a method she most likely learned while getting her MFA in Creative Writing.

There is one scene in this book that I find unforgettable.

It was when Henrietta’s surviving daughter, Deborah, went to see the geneticist who ordered a sample of each of her father’s and brothers’ blood. She asked the geneticist for an explanation on how her mother’s cells are still alive in her I’m-about-to-cry, pitiful way, but instead of answering her many questions, the geneticist gave her the standard speech on how her mother is important and then, to give her a hint that their conversation is over, he gave the poorly educated Deborah a science textbook with his autograph. It is plain in this situation who came from the knowledge-is-power camp and who is not and Deborah is from the latter. Makes you think if weakness is something that people would choose if they knew how others take advantage of it easily for their own interests.

If you buy this book, Rebecca Skloot will donate some of the proceeds to a foundation she created to give financial assistance to individuals who made contributions to scientific research without personal gain. That includes most of Henrietta Lacks’ descendants. It offers grants to other applicants as well.

Highly recommended to readers of history, science, and non-fiction.

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