In 1951, Henrietta Lacks changed the face of scientific research forever. A wife, mother, and poor black tobacco farmer, Henrietta’s cells were taken during the diagnosis of an aggressive cancer.
Following her death at the age of 31, Henrietta’s cells multiplied and grew at an alarming rate ... but her family would not find out until years later. Henrietta’s cells were taken by her doctor without her knowledge or consent.
Although this act was considered a common medical practice at the time, author Rebecca Skloot examines the medical and ethical questions regarding cell culture and what would become of the famous HeLa cells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Skloot weaves an interesting narrative of her own journey of discovering Henrietta’s story along with the very personal account of Henrietta’s life and family experiences. Skloot became fascinated and almost obsessed to the point of her own detriment to uncover the truth behind Henrietta’s health, family, and legacy.
Although Skloot is a very skilled and trained professional investigative reporter, I was often worried for the writer and what she might find. I was fearful not only for her safety, but that she might not be able to piece together the life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta’s story is both troubling and compelling, and I wanted Rebecca Skloot to give me as much information as possible.
There are a few times when the narrative becomes bogged down with technical jargon, but overall, Skloot does a fantastic job of relating the very complicated areas of medical research. I had no previous knowledge of Henrietta Lacks or HeLa cells, and I found myself fascinated by the procedures of the medical industry of 1950s.
I was surprised and shocked by the casual nature of the protocol of the time as described by Skloot. I can’t imagine anything like this happening today, although Henrietta’s situation ooccurred due to the deceptions of several unethical people. Anyone, including those in the professional medical fields, might see an opportunity to take advantage of someone. The world is a harsh place, and the 1950s medical era is no different even though it seems so long ago.
Skloot presents the story of Henrietta with a sense of urgency. It’s no wonder, when the account seems to have been reported incorrectly for so many years. In multiple publications Henrietta was referred to as Helen Lane or Helen Larson. Skloot projects the anger and frustration of the Lacks family, who had no idea that Henrietta’s cells were being used and grown for medical research. It’s obvious that Skloot became close to the Lacks family and developed a trust that transcended her research.
In the end I felt that Skloot had accomplished what she set out to do – shed light on a woman whose story had been buried under inaccuracy and years of bad fortune for her family. Nothing can change the past, but at the very least the story of Henrietta Lacks can be told in its entirety.
About the Author
Megan Garrett  is the librarian at the Sugar Creek Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. She also writes book reviews for the Independence Examiner newspaper.