Neuroscience book reviews: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 

By Rebecca Skloot
Reviewed by: Amelia Van Slooten, PhD Student

This is a captivating true tale about the family of a poor African-American woman called Henrietta Lacks, who unknowingly contributed to many fundamental scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. This is the story of how cancerous cells were taken from Henrietta before her death and how they became the world’s first immortal human cell line: HeLa. But more than that, it is the story of how Henrietta’s family coped with finding out that her cells had been taken without permission, their struggle to understand what cells were and what it meant for her cells to be “immortal”, and their treatment at the hands of scam artists, journalists, doctors, scientists and lawyers after the woman behind the cells was revealed. 

We are taken on Rebecca’s turbulent journey over more than a decade as she tries to contact Henrietta’s relatives and discover the truth of what happened at John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. Whilst Henrietta is the reason for writing this book, her daughter, Deborah, is the heart of this tale. The author formed a close relationship with Deborah and this is evident in the way Deborah is portrayed – her lively spirit, her reluctance to consult with yet another reporter and eventually her determination to find out everything she can about her mother and guard the knowledge ferociously. Despite her poverty, poor education and declining health, Deborah’s battle to understand how her mother’s cells were taken and used is inspiring.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells us startling facts about the state of research on human participants in the 1950s, how informed consent did not exist at the time and how there is still controversy today about who owns our tissues once they leave our bodies. We learn how HeLa cells have been to the moon, have helped developed the polio vaccine and have accelerated cancer research. But the triumph of this book is Rebecca’s vividly portrayed characters; the real people behind the science.

I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who has ever worked with human cells and anyone who has ever heard about the use of humans cells in research. Without Henrietta Lacks we would never have got this far.

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