Finally, I’ve got round to reading Rebecca Skloot‘s work on Henrietta Lacks – the 31-year-old cervical cancer sufferer whose cells (HeLa) live on years after her death in 1951. I’ve wanted to read this for ages and been a keen follower of Rebecca’s tweets; I’ve read extracts and heard her podcast (see post below) but here was my chance to read the whole book.
First off this book could easily be a novel as Rebecca fills us in on lives of Henrietta and her family, those who took her cells and watched them take on a life of their own, and her own story of her determination to tell this voiceless woman’s story. And the process really was a labour of love, as the results are almost 9 years in the making from Rebecca’s first contact with Henrietta’s family, to eventual publication.
So it’s part biography part scientific detective story, but more refreshing than either style normally has the right to be!
Henrietta’s actual story itself is quite shocking: as she was suffering from recently diagnosed cervical cancer in John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, a sample from her tumour was taken without her consent by a well-intentioned doctor who had been trying to grow cells in his lab. This was normal practice at the time, although research ethics have developed in leaps and bounds since. These cancer-ridden cells were the first “immortal” cells – ie they grew in the lab (and more worrying, perhaps, they’re still growing). It’s hard to imagine how one woman – whose own life was one of poverty – could have such an impact on the world. Her cells were manufactured, and these HeLa cells were then shipped all over the world, used to develop treatment for polio, travelled to space, and subjected to every form of experiment imaginable. Hers were the first cells to be cloned.
Yet as one of her children put it this is a family who, for all their mother’s services to science and progress, have scraped by without medical insurance. It’s great to see that the publishers have set up a grant funded programme to support this family’s needs, and that they’ll finally get some help after what seems to have been very tumultuous lives for them all.
A minor comment – I remember Rebecca talking about the US cover (shown here) and how the HE LA were embossed – that didn’t happen in the UK version, and I think I prefer the original.