Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 2nd 2010
Genres: Historical, Non-Fiction
Source: Library Book
Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.
The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
It has been a long, long time since I wrote a Midnight Book Club review! Our book club is 7 years old, and going stronger than ever before, but I’ve gotten lazy about reviews.
Sorry about that.
We read this book back in January, but I was already familiar with it, and had even read the first few chapters a few years ago because my niece was reading it for school. I was so glad that Laura picked it, because it was one of those books I wanted to read but just hadn’t made time for.
Skloot does a wonderful job bringing Henrietta Lacks to life as a real person and not just a tube of immortal cancer cells found in most labs in the world (and which, at least at some point, you could buy off Amazon- I know, because I checked). Her life was so short, but she left behind a lasting memory. And in her family and their current struggles, you can really see the difference between the haves and the have nots. It seems entirely unfair that a medical world that has been enriched beyond measure by Henrietta’s cells can’t even take care of her descendants.
The Lacks are given a voice in Skloot’s book, and presented with all the good, the bad, the ugly and the sadness that is part of Henrietta’s legacy. The author took a very active role, especially with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, in helping to not only uncover the answers she needed to write Henrietta’s story, but to also give the answers to the family that was desperate for information. It took years and untold patience, but Skloot won a place in the Lacks family, and I think they, and the world, are better off for it.
From now on, HeLa won’t just be immortal cancer cells capable of reproducing endlessly, but also the legacy of an amazing woman, wife, friend, mother, human being, Henrietta Lacks. I’m not usually into science, and there’s plenty of it here in the book, but history is something I find very interesting. Lacks story is one about race, inequality, poverty, education, women’t health, and ethics, told in a completely accessible way.
My favorite moments were the road trips Skloot took with Deborah to find out what happened to Henrietta’s other daughter, because asylums have long been a morbid curiosity of mine.
Our book club really enjoyed this one, and our discussion was really great- I can’t recommend this one enough for book clubs!