The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about a black woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer. But that is just the beginning of the story. When she went in to Johns Hopkins and got diagnosed, the doctor took a small sample off of the tumor without her knowing. This sample was sent to George Gey, who was attempting to grow cells in a laboratory. He hadn’t had any luck keeping the cells alive. Until Henrietta’s. The cells were labled HeLa, for the first two letters of her first and last name. These cells thrived and grew while Henrietta’s body failed and died of cancer.
The HeLa cell line is one of the first immortal cell lines. These cells are the most used cells in experiments by scientists. They have used these cells to test the first polio vaccine, in research for cures for cancer and AIDS, and have helped scientits to map genes and chromosomes.
Over twenty years after the HeLa cells first started to grow, Henrietta’s family found out about them. Twenty years! The book covers both the life of the HeLa cells and the life, and death, of Henrietta, her husband, Day, and their children and grandchildren. The stress and hardships they have been through since finding out and the clashes they have had over how to handle what they have found out.
Rebecca Skloot, the author, wanted to do something to help the family. She founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation and is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to it. The Foundation is set up to give scholarships for her decendents and also so they can afford to have health insurance and be able to benefit from the advances in medicine that have advanced from the HeLa cells.
It is an amazing read! The chapters aren’t simply in chronological order. One chapter will be about when they first started sending the cells to other scientists for their research, and the next could be about the author talking with Henrietta’s cousin about her childhood. It is a very well-written book that doesn’t use terms that you need a degree in biology to understand and has you feeling for the family by the end.
Spring Book Challenge: Pick a Nestie who you know has different taste in books than you do and read what she chooses for you