The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Image of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Release Date: 
February 1, 2010
Reviewed by: 

This begins as an excellent biography of a woman who might have remained unknown but for a miracle of medicine.

“At the age of twenty-one, Henrietta stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.”

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer, but her cells are still alive. To be exact, only her cancer cells continue to live, but they may live for up to 100 years if frozen. They are the so-called HeLa cells that are used by researchers throughout the world to advance the knowledge of how to fight and halt disease.

Author Rebecca Skloot has taken on the challenge of melding a family’s story with a tale of medicine and law. The personal story is engaging and quite well done. The reader will come to feel that he or she not only becomes acquainted with Henrietta Lacks, but also her late daughter Deborah, and her other children and grandchildren.

This reader felt the telling was less effective when addressing the medico-legal issues. That’s because the case is made that Henrietta’s cells were, in effect, stolen from her by Johns Hopkins Hospital. Yet once you’ve read though two-thirds of the book, you learn that Hopkins explicitly met the medical research standards (and the legal requirements) of the day.

Indeed, it was a much different time. A relation of this reviewer gave consent for a cancer biopsy in 1950 in a northern California hospital. Only later did the relative learn that her stomach cells were only removed in California; the cell slides were mailed to Johns Hopkins for the medical analysis and diagnosis. There’s also an apparent contradiction in the events. We’re told repeatedly that Henrietta did not consent to having her cells used for medical research. Yet her husband did authorize an autopsy, and there’s also a reference to a deathbed conversation during which Henrietta was said to have told a physician that she was pleased that others might benefit from an examination of her cancerous cell tissues. But even if this conversation never happened, the law at the time was what it was.

The author tells us that the rights of research subjects were largely unprotected until 1966. Yes, and this means that a lot of time is spent reviewing and debating the medical morality of an earlier time. It is a moot point.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah is the appealing figure in this account. She is the family member who argued—passionately and perhaps appropriately—that one cannot hold yesterday’s medical professionals to today’s ethical and moral standards. Deborah, in fact, jumps off the pages of The Immortal Life as the person who is brought back to life in the writing.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the cells were properly appropriated, the descendants of Henrietta Lacks have never benefited from the use of her cells. They have not received any money, and although HeLa cells are sold for medical research, the family does not have health care. This is truly a shame, an injustice, and it is hoped that Skloot’s account will—in highlighting this injustice—help effect change.

Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered, as does Deborah Lacks. Rebecca Skloot has provided the tombstone that Henrietta’s family could never afford. This true account is at its best when paying tribute to a woman whose life, in death, has benefited countless individuals worldwide. It is encouraging to hope and think that this account will result in a better life for the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.

That would be the greatest tribute of all.