- Mercy Sais
Alternating from biography to science, Rebecca Skloot in writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks avoids sentimentality and making judgments.
Skloot, a science journalist, tells the story of Henrietta and her DNA. The subject was born Loretta Pleasant—nobody knows how her name became Henrietta—Lacks, in a family known to marry their first cousins in the now-razed town of slave cabins and tobacco farms named Clover near Roanoke, Virginia. She married her first cousin, David ‘Day’ Lacks, moved to Baltimore to work in a plant riddled with asbestos. Her husband's unfaithfulness gave her both neurosyphilis and gonorrhea. Her environment, poverty and lack of education made her the tragic heroine of a great scientific experiment. Henrietta Lack's deadly cervical cancer cells—taken without her consent—were the first to be grown and then thrive in a lab. HeLa cells, still growing today sixty years after her death, would weigh in total more than 50 metric tons.
Her death left a family devastated by her loss. Her motherless children suffered greatly: her older mentally-handicapped daughter was institutionalized, experimented on and forgotten. Her younger children were abused both physically and mentally. Skloot spent a decade with the family, particularly with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who did not find out about her mother’s immortal cells until 20 years after Henrietta's death, when doctors wanted more medical information about the family.
HeLa cells were essential in creating the polio vaccine, uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, the effects of nuclear radiation, and helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. They have been bought and sold by the billions. On the other hand, HeLa cells were so powerful they contaminated other experiments and cost millions of dollars in faulty research.
The story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the creation of bioethics, and the legal battles over who controls the cells which make up the essence of life.