If you’re a poor African American woman living in Baltimore in the 1950s, and you learn you have cervical cancer, you go to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Not only is it considered one of the premier hospitals in the country, but the legacy of its founder ensures that you will be treated, even if you can’t pay. (side note: founder Johns Hopkins was an active anti-racist and not only decreed that the hospital treat African Americans in an era of segregation and slavery, he also endowed the hospital with funds to ensure that those freed from slavery would be able to receive medical treatment.)
So, when she learned she had cervical cancer at the tender age of 30, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for treatment. Unbeknownst to her, as part of her treatment, some of the tissue of her tumor was sent to George Gey’s lab in the basement of the hospital. There, the cells grew and multiplied at an unprecedented rate. While that rate of growth was important and beneficial for the furtherance of medical science, it also meant that the cancer cells in Ms. Lacks’ body grew quickly and thus, her cancer did not respond to treatment. She died at the age of 31, leaving behind her husband and five young children.
But Ms. Lacks’ legacy grew. Literally. Her cells – for reasons still not completely understood – divide continuously and infinitely. They were, quite literally, immortal.
The scientists were thrilled. This allowed them to have human cells to study in a vast variety of ways; to cheaply and eternally have access to human cells for research. To protect her privacy, the cells in the lab were dubbed HeLa cells. And they became unimaginably famous.
The problem, of course, was that nobody told Ms. Lacks or her family that they had removed her tissue for further study. Nobody told her or her family that her cells had a quality that thrilled scientists – and could have, would have, made her not only famous, but possibly rich.
Decades later, when Rebecca Skloot was in high school, she studied HeLa cells in biology class. And she became so fascinated by the cells that she wanted to know the back-story. Having the curiosity of a true scientist, she began what she expected to be a scientific journey into the cells, and instead became embroiled in an historical voyage beyond her wildest imagination. Skloot carefully documents the Labyrinthian history of the HeLa cells and the woman they came from. She spent months and months building the trust of Ms. Lacks’ family and then listened carefully to their story to ensure that she could tell it right. What she learns is the ugly underbelly of medical disrespect for people of color, and the ravages that racism and poverty inflict on a person, a family, a community.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reads like a novel, with fully drawn characters, plot twists and resolutions galore. However, it has no Hollywood ending. The legacies of racism permeate the story and leave Ms. Lacks’ family without answers for decades and without true justice ever. But it is a tale told with attention to detail, with honest respect for the truth and, with just enough humor to make it impossible to put down.