The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was written by Rebecca Skloot. I found this book at our little neighborhood library. The cover reads, “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multi-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.” I had to find out more, so I went home, and immediately devoured 60 pages. Lucky for me, it reads like a novel.
When Ms. Skloot was in a community education class at the age of 16, trying to earn high school credit, she learned about HeLa cells. Her instructor “pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle…” The cells didn’t mean too much to the author at the time. To her they looked like a “neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words.” She worried because she’d have to memorize everything on the diagrams. The instructor explained how the cells divide and how important they are. If one little cell misfires, they could start growing out of control. The instructor talked about how scientists learn about cancer by studying cancer cells in culture. He wrote Henrietta Lacks’s name (code name “HeLa”) in capital letters on the board and said “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years.” The instructor explained how HeLa cells helped develop drugs for treating many ailments and diseases and for also creating vaccines.
HeLa cells were first studied in 1951 when a doctor removed them from Henrietta Lacks and gave them to a lab. It was the first time human cells reproduced in a Petri dish. Scientists had been trying to reproduce human cells for decades, and it never worked. Ms. Skloot asked her instructor if he knew more about the lady who donated her cells, and he said no one really knows anything about her. Ms. Skloot could not believe it.
Ms. Skloot went on with her life and education, where she continued to learn about HeLa cells but learned nothing more about the actual person. Henrietta Lacks stayed in her mind and she was determined to find out more about her life and family. After ten years of research and interviews, her first book was published in 2010 and was instantly a New York Times best seller. Before publication, the author created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, and some of the proceeds from the sale of the book have been donated by the author to the Foundation.
If you like to read human interest stories that have a controversial theme, you would enjoy this book. I’m not one to read scientific books, but this story held my interest. I wanted to find out what happened to Henrietta Lacks, her family, and her cells. If you don’t have time to read the book, there’s a movie by the same title, but I haven’t seen it yet.
I’m going to return the book to the little neighborhood library, so someone else can learn the story. Did you know about Henrietta Lacks or HeLa before reading this post? 🐢