This book is on my daughter’s university reading list–she is studying nursing–and when she told me a bit about it, I downloaded the audio format from my library. I doubt that I would have discovered this book otherwise. It’s the true story of a 1950s African American female cancer patient whose cells are still alive in labs around the world, whose cells were used to test the polio vaccine, to gain information about gene mapping, viruses and cloning, whose cells are bought and sold and have made perhaps millions of dollars. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave near the house where she was born, former slave quarters in Lackstown, Virginia. And her surviving family cannot afford health care.
Rebeca Skloot’s detective skills provide details that make both the lab and the home vivid and real to the reader. We learn about the Johns Hopkins ward for “negroes” where Henrietta received treatment for cancer and where cervical tissue was removed from her, later to gain immortality. We learn about Dr. Gey’s innovative and ultimately successful efforts to design a culture that would enable human cells to stay alive as well as how to transport them via air, train and U.S. mail. Unwittingly, he pioneered processes, equipment and protocols that would pave the way for the hugely profitable bio-medical corporations that exist today. We learn about the physical and sexual abuse Henrietta’s children received after her death at the hands of yet another “cousin”.
Most poignant for me were the conversations with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Questions about the mother she couldn’t remember–Deborah was 4 when her mother died–what she was like, what happened to her eldest daughter Elsie, and why nobody told them about the “immortal cells”, bring Henrietta Lacks’ story back to the scale of a single human.
Cell biology, virology, medical practices of the early 1950s, segregation, poverty,tobacco farming, slave owning, Turners Station (one of the first African-American communities in Baltimore County) are some of the topics this book explores. It is an important book on so many levels. I am grateful to Rebecca Skloot for telling this story, so relevant to our time, with objectivity and skill.
9 out of 10.