By Rebecca Skloot. When Rebecca Skloot was sixteen her biology teacher mentioned the name Henrietta Lacks while he was teaching his class about cells. Ms Skloot became intrigued by the person behind the HeLa cells, the most cultured cells in the world, but could find out very little.
When she later became a science journalist, she spent ten years researching Henrietta Lacks and her extraordinary cells, and this book is the result.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman, living in America. She developed cervical cancer in her early thirties. In 1951, when this happened, the only place that a poor black person living in Baltimore, Maryland could get treatment was at Johns Hopkins, and here she received treatment, including the insertion of radium directly into her body and radiation treatments that burned her skin tar-coloured. For a while it was thought that the cancerous cells had been killed off, but soon after the cancer took her body over and she died at the age of thirty-one.
Meanwhile, however, a biopsy of the cervical lesion had been taken and had been cultured. Many people had been trying many means to culture cells, but with little success. Ms Lacks’ cells, however, just grew and grew and grew. Named “HeLa” (For HEnrietta LAcks), these cells were soon being sent to laboratories all over America and, to date, this first small donation has yielded about fifty-million tons of cells. Apart from having been used to test a vaccine for polio, to experiment with DNA and to discover why previous cell cultures just died, more than sixty thousand studies have been performed using these cells, and three hundred more studies are added each month.
So determined these cells are to live that they began to contaminate other cell cultures and there was a time when many studies were compromised because the cultures were no longer what they purported to be.
In order to get a proper insight into Henrietta Lacks’ life, Ms Skloot had first to win the trust of Henrietta’s family. This was no easy task as they were deeply suspicious of the journalist’s whiteness. The family felt that they had been betrayed over and over again by white people, and that their relative’s cells had been hi-jacked without her, or any one else’s, permission and had been exploited for the gain of many, while they had not even sufficient money to go to the doctor for treatment of their multiple medical problems. However, she slowly made friends and there is little doubt that her honesty and integrity brought great value to the Lacks’ family.
This book has stories within stories. It is the story of a journalist’s hunt for information, the story of her befriending of the hurt and suspicious Lacks family, the story of medical history in the latter part of the twentieth century, the story of racism, of ethics, of cancer and of poverty, and the story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks.
Immensely readable, cleverly structured to read a little like a detective story – although it is undoubtedly a book of non-fiction and does not pretend to be anything else – touching, insightful and thought provoking, I would recommend this book to all.