Book Review: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is a detailed and intimate look at HeLa’s amazing origin story

For decades the human race has benefited from someone and they didn’t even know her name. She was known simply as “HeLa” to those in the know and it was a cell line that has been used extensively in research and lead to some major medical breakthroughs. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will commit Henrietta Lacks’ name to the history books at long last. In this volume – which was originally published in 2010 and reprinted now to coincide with the HBO special of the same name – science journalist, Rebecca Skloot finally puts Henrietta Lacks under the microscope and makes us realise why we should all be eternally grateful to her.

This book was a labour of love, which took over a decade to write and research. The amount of time, care and effort is obvious in Skloot’s excellent text, which weaves together a story that is in part a biography and also touches on topics like: science, history and ethics. Part of the story sees Skloot painting herself into the tale and turning the book into a kind of detective quest as she ingratiates herself and earns the trust of the Lacks family and in particular, Henrietta’s youngest daughter Deborah. The resulting prose is disarmingly honest and intimate.

In 1951 an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks went to the doctor complaining she had a “knot” in her womb. It was cancer. Lacks would receive treatment at the racially-segregated “coloured” ward at John Hopkins Hospital. She would receive radium treatment and ultimately pass away after the aggressive cancer spread through her body. When she passed she was littered with tumours that ranged in size from small pearl-like structures to ones that were as large as baseballs.

When Lacks was receiving her cancer treatment the surgeon – unbeknownst to her – took a sliver of tissue from her cervix and sent it to the lab. From there, Dr George Gey and his assistant, Mary Kubicek were able to grow Henrietta’s cells. This was something that had previously been impossible to do, because in the earlier attempts to grow cells in the lab they had died. HeLa took on a life of its own, it kept dividing and growing like crazy and it is still being used today by the medical research industry. It is also responsible for the medical breakthroughs that have led to vaccines for polio, HPV and the flu-shot as well as IVF and treatments for cancer and AIDs.

Vials of HeLa cells can currently retail for hundreds of dollars. Yet Lacks’ descendants fail to receive a penny from this. Some of Henrietta’s family members are so impoverished they can’t even afford health insurance or the medicines that were formulated thanks to the research on HeLa cells. When the tissue specimen was taken from Lacks there was no requirement calling for the patient to give fully-informed consent. Skloot describes this in the historic context and also likens it to some other questionable experiments and studies that took place around the same time and involved African-Americans.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is an interesting and accessible book that fuses together a personal story about Henrietta Lacks and her family as well as some science, history and lessons in bio-ethics. It’s a volume that can make for uncomfortable reading at times, especially when you consider the treatment of the Lacks family. But it is important that this is documented so that credit can be given where it is due and that humanity can learn from its mistakes. This book should be required reading because it is important to know how far science and the world has come so that we can all understand the full truth behind HeLa and its amazing origin story.

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is available now through Pan MacMillan Australia.