Thoughts on the Recent Book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

by Vincent DeStefino

On a rainy day in late January 1951, a young couple drove up to the front entrance of Johns Hopkins Hospital in an old beat up Buick with their three children in the backseat. The mother, a young woman in her early 30’s who was suffering from deep, knot-like pains in her womb, hopped out of the front seat and scurried to the public ward filled with poor patients, most of them black. This was the era of segregation, and when the nurse called her name, Henrietta Lacks, she was led to the colored-only waiting room. This was a day that changed the life of Henrietta and her family, as well as science and medicine itself.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot, follows Henrietta Lacks through her diagnosis and battle with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her treatment, an ambitious cell researcher at Johns Hopkins and former Pitt undergrad, Dr. George Otto Gey, was determined to establish the very first human immortal cell line. Gey grabbed every cell he could get his hands on – skin cells, liver cells, cardiac cells or even cervical cells. During Henrietta’s visit, a dime-sized portion of her cancerous cervical cells were collected in a test tube, and Gey allowed them to grow in media. Whereas every other human cell before Henrietta’s died within a week in vitro, Henrietta’s cells grew. And they grew fast.

Thus, the HeLa cell line was born, and with it the field of cell culture was transformed. Research into AIDS, cancer, cell growth and maturation, effects of radiation and toxins, gene mapping and countless other scientific achievements were done with the use of HeLa. The polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk was developed in Pittsburgh in 1952 with the use of HeLa. Indeed, over 60,000 scientific articles have been published involving the use of HeLa, and this number is still growing.

The book can be sobering at times. Not once during Henrietta’s diagnosis and treatment was she given informed consent that a sample of her cells had been taken. After she died and companies began mass producing HeLa cells, none of her family members had any clue that the famous HeLa line was really their relative’s cells.

Skloot describes the pain and psychological distress that members of her family endured upon learning the identity of the woman science had termed “HeLa.” The book goes into great detail about ethics and privacy rights. Reading about some of the practices and experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in those times, such as permitting syphilitic African American men to die rather than cure with penicillin in order to observe the course of the disease, makes any reader today cringe.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a must-read for anyone considering entering the scientific or medical arena. Skloot interweaves the story of Henrietta Lacks and the Lacks family within the story of the development and use of HeLa. Skloot shows how a young black woman coming from a time when African Americans and women were not at the forefront of science could in fact – with or without her consent – move science and public health forward.