Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Lacks is an amazing book.  I personally think every woman should read is just fascinating and I can't believe that it took me so long to read it.  I think that part of the reluctance was my long-standing aversion to non-fiction, which I am slowly realizing was just ignorance on my part!  Perhaps that it too harsh...perhaps I had just never read gripping non-fiction growing up...I don't know...

The book fulfilled my on-going longing for genealogical research reading, although it is not really a book about genealogy per se. 

A very brief summary of the story is that Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman whose cells were, unknownly to her, taken in 1951 as she was struggling with cervical cancer.  Henrietta was thirty one years old, the mother of ten children when she went to John Hopkins Hospital reporting that "I got a knot on my womb."  Henrietta had been telling her cousins for over a year that she had this "knot", before she went to the clinic at the hospital. A few days after her visit to the clinic, she was diagnosed with Stage 1cervical cancer. At that time, cervical cancer was treated with inserting radium into the patient.  During Henrietta's first treatment, some cells were removed for biopsies.  None of that was unusual.  Usually the cells that were removed would die.  Henrietta's cells didn't.

Although Henrietta nor her family knew that the cells had been taken, the cells were cultured for research that over the years ended up having immeasurable impact in the world of medicine. The cells taken from Henrietta Lacks were called HeLa cells. 

Taken from:

"Why are her cells so important?
Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization."

The HeLa cells have helped uncover secrets of cancer, and fertilization.  And the research has generated billions of dollars for the medical industry.

The author reported that she first learned of HeLa cells in 1988 while attending a biology class in community college. Thus began her quest to learn more about the woman who had unknowingly contributed so much to the world.  It turned out to be quite a journey for the author.  As she wrote in the prologue:

"The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race.  Ultimately, this book is the result.  It's not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta's family-particularly Deborah-and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible."

Ms. Skloot slowly developed relationships with some of Henrietta's family and learned more about her life and their lives following the death of Henrietta.  It is fascinating reading, great detective work, and amazing genealogical research.

Read, read, read this book!

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