A poor, black Southern tobacco farmer shows up at a hospital with an aggressive form of cervical cancer in the 1950s. A biopsy of cells is taken from her cervix. Today, well over half a century later, those cells are still alive and replicating, and have becomes one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. Replicas of those cells have been used to study polio, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping and more, and have contributed to some of the most ground-breaking biological studies ever done. The woman those cells came from died, and for many decades her life passed into obscurity, almost forgotten by all those but her immediate family. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she may have been entirely forgotten had it not been for the dedication of her daughter and a very determined journalist.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is – and I say this with little knowledge on the subject – one of the greatest science books of all time. You may be wondering how I, a self-described science ignoramus, could possibly be qualified to classify any book as “one of the greatest science books of all time.” But it’s may status as a non-sciency person that makes my opinion so important, because it shows that this book was able to reach across a void of knowledge, education and understanding and pull me into the complex and ever-changing world of scientific discovery. In a time when vaccines and climate change are being widely questioned by the general public, it is even more important that journalists find ways to bridge the gap between people with deep, scientific knowledge of health and the natural world and those of us who don’t share that same knowledge.
Many journalists dream of coming across a story like the one Rebecca Skloot tells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s got all of the components of an incredible piece of journalism: compelling characters, timeliness, data. Most importantly, no one had ever told the whole story before. But what becomes clear over the course of the almost 300-age non-fiction book is that the story of Henrietta Lacks hadn’t been completely unknown until Skloot came along. In fact, many people had known who Henrietta was, and instead of shining a light on her life and contribution to science, they swept her identity and history under the rug.
Henrietta Lacks, as a poor black woman, was largely erased from history. The scientists and doctors and researchers who benefitted so greatly from her cells almost never acknowledged where they came from. Many people profited financially from Henrietta’s cells, and yet her family, who have dealt with an array of multi-generational problems like poverty, racism and health problems, never saw any of those benefits themselves. Henrietta’s story raises ethical and philosophical and moral questions that linger today. Rebecca Skloot does a magnificent job of laying out not only the dilemmas Henrietta’s story so starkly exposes, but also the humanity at the core of the problems.
The relationship Skloot forms with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, grounds the story, drawing the reader in and keeping them focused even throughout lengthy explanations of cell replication and other biological phenomena (which are incredibly interesting, detailed and pertinent to the story). The pair are working towards a common goal, but often finds themselves at odds because of their vastly different backgrounds and motivations.
The real triumph of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it serves as reminder that behind every scientific or medical discovery is a person - or a number of people - who had to endure hardship and suffering. Skloot has finally given Henrietta Lacks and her family the credit and recognition, and most importantly the understanding of their loved ones’ experience they so deserve.