“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

In this edition of Jeff’s Notes, my extremely concise summary and discussion of books written about science by women, I will be looking at “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks is immortal because she possessed the first human cells that survived in culture. How immortal is Henrietta? A scientist estimated that if you took all the cultured cells created from Henrietta’s tissue, they’d “wrap around the earth at least three times” and would weigh “more than 50 metric tons”. Bear in mind that a cell is microscopic and weighs an infinitesimal fraction more than nothing.

Henrietta happened to have an extremely malignant form of cancer, and it was those cancerous cells that continued to grow like wildfire in culture. In fact, Henrietta’s cells were so supercharged that they contaminated a number of other cell lines without the knowledge of researchers throwing several key findings by those researchers into question.

But “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is more than a fascinating history of how scientists first cultured human cells. It’s also a story about medical ethics, race, and poverty. All three can be summed up in the following three sentences. Henrietta Lacks’ tissue was taken and cultured without her knowledge or consent. Henrietta was black in the era of segregation and had fewer rights. And neither Henrietta nor anyone in her family got a single penny from her cultured cells even though some biotech firms made a great deal of money selling her cells.

I typically don’t like books where the author inserts themselves into the story and writes about their journey in the course of writing their book. However, I think that it was appropriate here because it really illustrated how the complex issues of medical ethics, race, poverty, and lack of education have affected the Lacks family for decades.

This is a great book. It’s truly worth a read. And you might be surprised to find out just how few rights you have over your own tissues and cells even today.

Up next on Jeff’s Notes: Drug Dealer, MD: How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop by Anna Lembke