The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is about a woman and her contribution to science and medicine. A contribution she never knew about.
Henrietta Lacks is also known as HeLa in the scientific world. At age 31, she died of cancer. This was in 1951. Today, her cells are still being used for medical research. Cells her doctors took without her knowledge. Cells that could be cultured in a lab when no other cells could.
If you could put every HeLa cell ever grown on a scale, they would weigh a total of about 50 million metric tons! Her cells are responsible for helping to develop the polio vaccine, discovering the secrets of cancer, learning about viruses, determining what happens to cells when exposed to atom bombs. They have helped in the research of in vitro fertilisation, cloning, and genome mapping. They have been bought and sold by millions of scientists and drug companies.
Yet no one in her family even knew about it.
HeLa cells launched a multi-million dollar industry of selling biological material for research, yet her family never saw a penny of it. They couldn’t even afford health care.
The book covers the life of Henrietta and her children. It tells about her being a descendant from slaves and growing up in the tobacco fields of Clover, Virginia. You learn about her sickness and death, how her children grew up after she died. You learn how the family finally discovered her immortality and how it has affected them.
The book also covers the history of the cells. It tells why the HeLa cells were the first cells to ever be cultivated and grown in a lab. It tells how these cultivated cells were freely given away for medical research. The reader is taken through the discoveries made using these cells.
The book also gives a little of the history of the birth of bio-ethics and how they didn’t even exist in the 1950’s.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a mixture of the family history and the cell history. There’s a bit of science in the book, but it’s extremely easy to understand. And it’s fascinating. As is the story of her life and her family. The two stories are combined well.
This was a very interesting book. It read like a novel, but I learned so much about the scientific discoveries made using the HeLa cells. I learned bout the woman whose cells are responsible for these discoveries, and I learned about how this all has affected her family.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells. This book explains why.