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Monday, 4 April 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Mary Kubicek, a 21 year old research assistant at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, had never seen a dead body before she attended Henrietta Lack's autopsy. Determined not to faint, she avoided looking into Henrietta’s lifeless eyes. Instead, she focussed on handing petri dishes to the pathologist as he cut tissue from the cancerous tumours that littered Henrietta’s body. Then Mary noticed Henrietta’s feet and the chipped red nail polish on her toes, and gasped. “When I saw those toenails I nearly fainted,” Mary recalled. “I thought oh jeez she’s a real person.”

Before the autopsy Mary had merely thought of Henrietta Lacks as the source of the extraordinary cells grown by her boss, tissue researcher George Gey.  These were the first human cells successfully grown outside the body. Months before, whilst Henrietta was being treated for the cancer that would soon kill her, tissue was taken from her cervix without her knowledge or consent. Unlike all other cells which Gey had tried but failed to cultivate, Henrietta’s cells – which he called HeLa cells by taking the first two letters of her names – did something Gey had never seen before. “They could be kept alive and grow.” Gey had created the first “immortal” cells. Cells that could divide an unlimited time in a laboratory.

Gey was soon sending the cells to virtually any scientist who asked for them. In 1954, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine with the help of HeLa cells. Since then the cells have been mass produced and used in countless research projects all over the world including ones relating to cancer, AIDS and the effects of radiation. It’s estimated that by 2009 more than 60,000 scientific articles about HeLa cells had been published. That number is increasing by more than 300 per month.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the science. She asks who was the woman with the flaking red toenail polish. And what happened to the five children left motherless by her death at the age of 31?

Skloot vividly evokes Henrietta’s early life living and working in the family’s Virginia tobacco fields – the same fields which her ancestors had worked as slaves. Later, after Henrietta, her husband Day and their five children move to Baltimore, Skloot describes how Henrietta would sneak out to dance halls with her cousin Sadie after her husband had gone off to work. As Sadie recalls: “We used to really swing out heavy. We couldn’t help it. Hennie made life come alive – bein with her was like bein with fun.”

At the heart of the book is Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was just two years old when her mother died. Deborah and her three brothers didn’t even know about the HeLa cells until 22 years after their mother's death. Skloot helps Deborah and her brothers try to answer the questions that have been gnawing at them ever since. As Deborah says: “If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime.”

Skloot’s brilliant, fascinating book deals with poverty, racism and the medical ethics that determine who owns the cells our bodies are made of. 

But most of all this is a book about Henrietta’s family and especially Deborah who “just wants to know who my mother was.” When a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital invites Deborah and her brother Zakariyya to look at some HeLa cells under a microscope it’s so moving you would think they had been reunited with their mother after 50 years. “They’re beautiful,” Deborah whispers, "I never dreamed this day would come.”


  1. i am a huge fan of henrietta lacks. my reason is because i love science and it is one of my areas that i specaliase in. anybody who likes science should have a read. i have also been reasearching about her and i think it is an amazing book. also if i had a chance to meet the author behind this brilliant book i would be the most happiest person on earth. it is a spectacular book!!!!!

  2. This is an amazing, fascinating true story about a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s who became ill with cervical cancer. Her cells were taken from her body during treatment and harvested for medical research. They took two samples of the cells from her uterus. These Hela cells mass produced and have become immortal.Years of disinterest or misinformation kept the truth from Henrietta's family and the world. This book is a document in history and the extent the Lacks' have gone through to get the truth told about their mother. This book was obviously well researched, not just in the history but the personal aspect was engaging and interesting. Henrietta Lacks is a miracle. She helped find numerous vaccines and enabled the research and discovery of some of medical treatment after she was long gone.