“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. 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 remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African-Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?”
This book was so amazing. It was a beautiful and heartbreaking story. It is a story that needs to be told over and over again and put into the history and science books. Henrietta Lacks. What do you even say about her? She may have grown up poor and had a rough life during these times of inequality in America but she was a strong and extraordinary women. She battled through so much, yet it always seemed like she had a smile on her face.
It was hard to read about how she grew up. Makes you feel like an ass when you bitch about the little things and take things for granted. Even in 2018 there is still hurt, poor, and racism yet it is easier to not see it in todays time. It is something we need to start seeing and talking about more. And it has started to happen. Thank goodness. I feel fortunate for never having to deal with racism. While I did not grow up rich what so ever, I did have a lot more advantages and things than even some people have now. It breaks my heart. I know what needs to be done but how to get it done is where I struggle. As of now I just try to lend my voice to those who may need a voice.
Ok so now that we got totally off track let’s get back to Henrietta. She tried to make the best of what she had. She was an amazing mother to her kids, an amazing wife to her husband and an amazing friend as well. Despite being diagnosed with an ugly disease at such a young age she never once let it stop her from taking care of her family. While in pain you would not have known it. Sadly that disease won out in the end. She was in her early 30’s. Most her kids were so young they didn’t remember their mother. When Henrietta died everyone just stopped talking about her, including her husband.
During a routine biopsy some cells were taken without her permission and used in a science lap. What happened next was nothing but extraordinary. I know if Henrietta had known what her cells were doing and how they could help millions of people she would be thrilled. She was all about helping others when she was alive. But this was during Jim Crow law times. There was major segregation and Blacks were treated was differently than whites. The doctors and scientist never told her family that they took the cells. They tricked them into an autopsy after she died saying they wanted to help his children in the future but they were really taking more cells from her.
Henrietta was gone and just became known as HeLa. It took over 20 years after her death before her family even knew what was going on. That a part of their mother was still living and helping millions of people survive. It took an emotional toll on her kids, specially her daughter, Deborah. I adored Deborah in the book.
What is so sad is that while biotech and pharmaceutical companies were making millions of dollars from Henrietta’s cells, her family was dirt poor, most lacked an education and could not even afford health insurance. How sad is that. And to Deborah it wasn’t even about the money. She just wanted to know who her mother was. She didn’t know anything about her. She had a hard time dealing with all this.
You also get a good look into how disabled blacks were dealt with in mental hospitals. Henrietta’s one daughter ended up in one. Rebecca and Deborah went to find out all they could about her and it made me sick to hear about the things that happened there to blacks.
Rebecca did an amazing job telling Henrietta’s story. She did get scientific but she made it easy for non-science people to understand what was going on. The ending shattered my heart into a million pieces. I cried so hard at the end.
I highly recommend this book. I also watched the HBO movie that Oprah stared in based off the book. I did miss that they cut out the part where Rebecca goes to Clover before even getting to meet up with any of the Lacks family members. But overall they did a great job with the movie. I cried, laughed, smiled and once again my heart broke at the ending. There was one particular part of the movie that made me choke up. When Deborah and her younger brother got to go to the lab and see their mother’s cells. Gah! Go read and watch!!!!
Henrietta Lacks and her husband, Day.
Henrietta’s daughter, Elsie.
Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, age 4