The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Stacey Hollebeek
Ever wonder what happens to all that blood you get drawn at the doctor’s office? Or to your appendix or gall bladder after it’s removed? The cyst you had checked for cancer? The placenta from your baby? I always had assumed it all got tossed into one of those orange biohazard plastic bags and tossed into a landfill somewhere. Who would want all of that nastiness anyway?
But not so, I’ve just learned from Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Millions of tissue and blood samples from millions of us across the country are saved in lab freezers, on shelves, and in “industrial vats of liquid nitrogen” (p. 317) in biotech labs, hospitals, military storage, even the FBI. And supposedly the number is growing by 20 million samples a year, all in the name of hoped-for cures for multiple diseases through genetic testing. And although all this crazy collecting didn’t begin with Henrietta Lacks, it was her cancerous cervical cells that jump-started the whole science, and provided the first cells to, not only live successfully outside of a living being, but to reproduce themselves innumerably for scientists all over the world. And biologists have been collecting us ever since.
Maybe you medical people have heard of HeLa cells, abbreviated from Henrietta Lacks, and all the miracles they have worked for medicine and science the world round, including helping cure polio and map out our DNA code. But being in the humanities, I never got around to learning about them, and found Skloot’s revelation of these rather shocking cells fascinating in her meticulously-researched 384-page book that came out in 2010 to rave reviews.
The book’s purpose seems twofold: First of all, to inform readers about Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman behind the world’s most famous cells, who died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in 1951, soon after a cancerous tumor was scraped from her cervix, unbeknownst to her. In between chapters of Henrietta’s difficult childhood in rural Virginia, early marriage, and subsequent move to Baltimore, Skloot intercepts with chapters of the growing medical science of cellular biology and the 1940’s-50’s scientific community’s obsession with growing and keeping cells alive from anything or anyone they could get their hands on. But she switches back and forth so effortlessly, that the chapters on cell culture and their cultivators are just as captivating as the personal tale of Henrietta, a woman we all come to love and root for. This first half is an invigorating, fascinating, and an easy, well-researched read.
It’s the second half where things get stickier, and the secondary purpose is clouded. As the science of cell culture grows through the 1960s into our present time, Skloot presents the varied ethics connected with the science, as they extend from Henrietta, whose family had no clue her cells were still alive, being mailed all over the world for scientific research, and being sold – never to the advantage of Johns Hopkins, as her family mistakenly assumed, but certainly by commercial biological labs. Interspersed with difficult but eye-opening tissue ethics – who has a right to our biological trash? – and privacy breaches by not-corrupt, but certainly greedy cellular biologists – are chapters detailing Skloot’s ten years of researching the book, and the relentless work she dug into in order to know the idiosyncratic Lacks family and tell their tale. It’s difficult to distinguish how much Henrietta’s family and children are hurt from their mother’s cells being “borrowed” without any of their knowledge or concern for protecting their privacy, and how much of their difficult life circumstances stem from poverty, race, incest, generational lack of parental guidance, diseases passed on through unacknowledged adulteries.
I’m not sure the second half of the book does the Lacks family any favors, and they might best be left shrouded in some shred of privacy left them. Skloot never states outright that they have a monetary claim because of all the scientific advances their mother’s cells afforded the world, but without this claim a conflicted possibility, the second half of the book has little point for its existence. In the end, Deborah Lacks, who was too young to know her mother Henrietta, moves past her brothers’ hope for monetary reward from their mother’s cells, to just being grateful to learn more about the person her mother was – as we all are.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this book for me was how recent all these medical advances and biological ethical dilemmas are – largely within my life time, I found, and increasingly pertinent to all of us today. Also absorbing were Skloot’s presentations of the various scientific personalities, especially the beguiling George Gey, the cellular biologist who actually requested and grew Henrietta’s cells, though to little personal – and no monetary – advantage. All in all, I would definitely recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, found on our local library shelves, though not as a lighthearted, entertaining summer read, but certainly as an important, informative read about modern medical ethics and their implication for all of us.
FOR THE KIDDOS
The Story of Doctor Dolittle
By Teddy Hollebeek
The book I read is (an abridged version of) The Story of Doctor Dolittle written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting. The main characters are Doctor Dolittle, a doctor who was able to talk to animals because his parrot told him how, Chie Chie his monkey from Africa, and Gub-Gub, his baby pig. I liked Doctor Dolittle because he was able to talk to animals. In the book, the monkeys in Africa were all getting sick, so Doctor Dolittle came and healed them. My favorite part was when Doctor Dolittle gets a two-headed animal named Pushmi-Pullyu that he shows in a circus for money. I would recommend this book because he goes to Africa.