Honestly, I shouldn’t even have been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I had the flu and was so feverish that sweat was dripping off my nose and spattering the pages. But I could not put the book down — or even stop for a glass of ice water. Lacks’ story was that compelling.
As the onetime tobacco farmer lay dying of cervical cancer in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, doctors snipped a tissue sample from her tumor. (Without asking.) Back then, no human cells had ever survived in the lab. Lacks’ were different: They not only lived but flourished, sometimes taking over entire petri dishes. In fact, over the past six decades, scientists have harvested some 50 million metric tons of the robust HeLa cells, as they’re called, leading to cures and treatments for diseases ranging from polio and cancer to AIDS. HeLa cells have been used in 60,000 scientific studies. They have gone to outer space. And yet, while these cells have enriched the lives of those who sold them, Lacks’ children and grandchildren, who never received a penny of compensation, have struggled.
It took science journalist Skloot years to gain the family’s trust. “I had enough’a you people,” Lacks’ husband, David, snapped the first time she called him. It was Lacks’ daughter Deborah, whose spirit infuses the book as surely as Henrietta’s does, who wanted Skloot to succeed — not for any noble scientific reason, but because she wanted to know her mother better. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live,” she told Skloot. But she added, “I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.” Through Lacks, the story of modern medicine and bioethics — and, indeed, race relations — is refracted beautifully, and movingly. A