Henrietta Lacks died at age 31, her body racked with cancerous tumors growing out of control. She was a poor black woman in the public ward of Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951, a person who hid her intense pain from her family and friends as long as she could. Her story is one that could have been forgotten, if not for the fact that the cells taken from her cancerous tumors transformed science, research, and medicine.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a complex book. At times it is a biography of Henrietta Lacks and her family, from the early years of the century until today. At times it is a science volume, explaining the ways in which HeLa cells have contributed to cancer research, immunization research, and so forth. At times it is a memoir of one persistent researcher looking for answers. In all aspects, it’s a look at the history of race relations in America, especially in terms of medical care and privacy. I found it so fascinating, I did not want to stop reading, in my curiosity of what could possibly happen next.
The Immortal Life opens up plenty of issues for discussion: how would you feel about your cells being kept alive? What if it would further science? How would you feel about your deceased mother’s medical history then being shared with the medical community and the world without your permission? How would this story be different if Henrietta Lacks was not a poor black woman? How would her legacy be different if she were not who she was? What right did Rebecca Skloot have to open up her family’s past to a biography of this magnitude? What do you think of the ethical, moral, and cultural implications of Henrietta’s story?
Now that I have finished, I have yet more questions. I look forward to having a book club discussion about this some day. There so much in there to ponder, even including the presence of the narrator, Ms Rebecca Skloot. Wasn’t her actions just as morally and ethically questionable as the medical professionals? She pester the Lacks’ family in order to get them to tell her their story. It seems pretty clear that they did not want to talk to her, and only her persistence over years made it possible for her to write the story. Never the less, Henrietta Lacks is one of those well written nonfiction books that leaves me wanting more. Well done and highly recommended!