Converse's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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Dec 25, 11

bookshelves: business, biology, non-fiction, medicine, history
Read in December, 2011

Henrietta Lacks was a sharp dresser. Henrietta Lacks had style. And though she died in 1951, she is still with us in a physical sense.

Lacks, an African-American woman living near Baltimore, Maryland, went to John Hopkins hospital after she noticed some vaginal bleeding. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. While being diagnosed or treated, a tissue sample was removed from one of the tumors. This sample, unbeknownst to Hentrietta (and certainly without any consent forms) proved to be the origin of the first human cell line to survive in tissue culture.

Healthy human cells die out after a fixed number of cell replications when maintained outside the body. Cells infected with cancer may be able to replicate continuously when maintained in culture. Such cells are very useful in research.

Henrietta's family did not learn that her cells were growing in laboratories all over the world until the 1970s, when doctor's took blood samples (to help identify which human cell cultures were Henrietta's - scientists had just realized that her cells tended to over power other cell lines and cause contamination problems) and an article came out in Rolling Stone about Henrietta and her cells.

The family were nonplussed by learning about what had happened to their mother's tissue. The lack of informed consent, the racial aspects (white doctors doing stuff to a black indigent patient without telling her or her family), the lack of financial compensation (John Hopkins may not have made any money from the cells, but others do sell the cells commercially), and the fact that the family often can't afford health insurance while their mother's cells contribute to medical research all grate. Also, the weirdness of some of the stuff done with Hentrietta's cells and the basic oddity of discovering that part of your loved one is still alive added to their hurt.

Rebecca Skloot, a middle class, agnostic white woman from the Pacific Northwest, had a task getting an poor, angry black Christian (mostly)family with roots in rural Virginia to tell their story. Eventually she did; Henrietta's daughter Deborah was the key figure. But it was slow process, marked by episodes of mistrust.

I first published this review at Amazon.com
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