The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks written by Rebecca Skloot details the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks.
Lacks is an African-American woman born in Virginia in 1920. She is a mother, daughter, wife, and one of the greatest contributors to medical research. Before passing away from cervical cancer, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken and used for research without her or her family’s consent. Her cells, known in the scientific community as HeLa, are ‘immortal’. This term derives from the HeLa cell’s ability to divide an infinite number of times. Henrietta Lacks is invaluable to medicine and scientific research. From HIV, Polio to Parkinson’s, the list is extensive. Despite all of this, people know little about the person behind the cells, and her name is often obscured.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The book not only illustrates the interplay of poverty, race, and medicine, but also covers in great detail what life was like for the Lacks’ children. For a long time, Henrietta Lacks’ husband and children did not know about her cells. As an impoverished family, the Lacks’ did not have access to the same medicine Henrietta Lacks helped developed. While scientist commercialized HeLa cells, the Lacks family received no profit. Rather, like Henrietta Lacks, the family endured exploitation and dehumanized for research. However, Skloot does a great job at bringing the woman behind HeLa cells to life–telling all her story–good and bad.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides commentary on medical science by exploring the ethical issues surrounding research. While I think most of us want to believe that medical research has altruistic intentions, the story of Henrietta Lacks suggests this is not always the case. It’s also worth noting that human tissue is a multi-billion dollar industry (source). I find it mind-blowing, and disconcerting to know human raw material is patented and sold without people’s knowledge. At the end of the book, Skloot explores the grey ethical area of human cell patenting and tissue rights and ownership. As with any medical or technological advancement, I think we must realize (or at least acknowledge) that our progress comes with a potential cost.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful book. (I have only touched a few points from the book, but the book is filled with information.) I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already.
HBO Films: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
To my surprise (and excitement), I found out that HBO was producing a movie based on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Judging by some of the names on the cast list, I CANNOT WAIT until this movie comes out. Renée Elise Goldsberry plays Henrietta Lacks, Oprah Winfrey is casted as Deborah Lacks (daughter); and Roger Robinson is playing Day Lacks, the husband of Henrietta Lacks. This movie is on my must-see list!
For more information on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, click here