Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Themes of race, class and the role of ethics in science at a seat-edger pace
This powerful narrative delves a serendipitous moment in a laboratory that transformed modern medicine — with a profoundly destructive impact on the lives that made it possible. In the 1950s, Johns Hopkins scientists successfully cultivated the first human cells to live for an extended period of time outside the body. The tissue came from a slave-descended black woman named Henrietta Lacks who had come to the hospital’s “colored ward” for cancer treatment. Because the era’s medical ethics didn’t demand it, Lacks’s doctors never sought consent for her tissue. She died shortly thereafter, but her cells lived on. Scientists lauded the stunning medical achievement: Not only did the revolutionary new process enable them to study diseases and treatments without using patients as guinea pigs, but the so-called HeLa cells continued to multiply at an incredible rate. Over decades they were used to study AIDS, cancer, the impact of the moon’s zero gravity on human visitors, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, among others.
Meanwhile, Lacks’s family, impoverished and ridden with their own health problems, had no idea that any of this was happening until the 1970s, when journalists began to trace the cells back to their origin. But the revelation only brought nosy reporters, exploitative scientists and scam artists, and the lack of financial compensation and real recognition for Lacks’s contribution left the family embittered. Enter Skloot, a dogged science writer who spent 10 years finding out the true story of Henrietta Lacks. Her fascinating account manages to tackle the big themes — race, class, the idealistic march of progress and its inevitable commercialization, the role of ethics in science, and the need for privacy protections in an increasingly technological world — while never letting up its relentless, seat-edger pace.