In the mid-1900s, it was not out of the ordinary for scientists to conduct studies without informed consent on the poor, the incarcerated, or non-white populations in an attempt to “better current human conditions.” These studies could be anything from testing vaccine prototypes to executing unnecessary surgical procedures as practice for surgeons. In one particular case, Mary Kubicek (a technician from George Gey’s lab at Johns Hopkins) was tasked with collecting cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks before and after her death from cervical cancer.
It just so happens that this woman’s cells were extremely potent, becoming the so-called first ever immortal cell line. This immortality means that the cells are able to proliferate infinitely and grow in experimental conditions, a very desirable trait for researchers to see how these cells respond to stimuli such as bacteria and viruses in order to develop vaccines. Kubicek harvested these cells without thinking of the subjects as humans until she saw Henrietta’s red toenail polish during her autopsy, thinking, “Oh jeez, she’s a real person… It hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.” This story reveals the impersonal processes of research and how this contributes to the inequality Henrietta Lacks and others face in healthcare in 1951.
Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a lucid and humanizing account of Henrietta Lacks and her family, the discovery and commercialization of the HeLa cell line, and the story of the Lacks children and their struggles. Themes such as the evolution of bioethics, classism and racism, and the contrast between religious belief and scientific contributions are explored in depth.
Divided into three different timelines, Skloot’s book describes the story of HeLa in three distinct parts: Life, Death, and Immortality. The three timelines structure the entire story effectively: the first on Henrietta Lacks and her backstory, the second on George Gey’s drive to culture Henrietta’s cells and the commercialization of HeLa, and the last on Skloot as she stumbles upon the Lacks’s story and uncovers truths that are revealed in this book. This book has many goals, but the primary target is to provide the readers with an understanding of who Henrietta was and why she was shrouded in mystery despite the revolutionizing medical achievements – the polio vaccine, the HPV vaccine, chromosome counting techniques, just to name a few – that came from research using her cells.
Part I, “Life,” succinctly does three things: first, it tells the story of how Henrietta was raised and introduces some of her family members. It also describes how she first was diagnosed with cervical cancer and Gey came into contact with Lacks’s cells as a potential candidate for an immortal cell line. Finally, it narrates how the author herself started her journey in understanding more about bioethics and the Lackses, and eventually crossed paths with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who “just want[ed] to know who [her] mother was.”
Part II, “Death,” starts with Henrietta’s death and how HeLa came to be. This cell line was discovered by Gey through a piece of cancerous tissue taken from Lacks’s cervix during a biopsy and harvested from an unintentionally authorized autopsy. Its miraculous properties helped researchers around the world to create new medications. With the help of biopharmaceutical companies, HeLa cells were produced in vast quantities and became omnipresent in the scientific community. Gey wished to protect Lacks’s identity; for him, it meant burying Henrietta Lacks’s name and introducing a pseudonym to the press, “Helen Lane.” This pseudonym spelt the death of Lacks’s name. Part II also touches on the effects of Lacks’s physical death on her family – how her husband, relatives, and friends grieved, before shifting the focus to the series of misfortunes that befall her children. We follow the lives of Deborah Lacks and her siblings in the past and present; Skloot skillfully includes these narratives to familiarize the readers with Deborah Lacks, a main character in latter parts of the book and a main driver behind Skloot’s abilities to uncover much of the mystery surrounding the death of Henrietta Lacks and the birth of HeLa.
Finally, “Immortality” explores HeLa’s lasting impacts on the world and on the Lackses. It focuses on Deborah Lacks’s quest to gain recognition for her mother. It also outlines the evolution of the scientific community: a society that once routinely obtained biomatter from individuals who did not (or could not) provide consent to a community that now repents and rebukes actions like these. There were even efforts to recognize and thank the Lacks family. The three timelines converge when Skloot contacts Deborah for an interview and keeps in touch with the Lackses for ten years while working on this book.
Considering the complex relationships that characters have with each other, this book’s lucidity ensures that we never lose track of each character and the roles they play in this story. Skloot’s pauses for explanations of scientific terms like “clones” and “telomeres” and her retelling of the backstories, especially ones that elucidate the motivations of scientists to use technologies relating to HeLa, complete the mapping of this subject in the readers’ minds. Skloot’s language is clear, and she skillfully employs metaphors to help readers visualize cells and persons in her book. For example, Skloot compares HeLa cells to “workhorses” and “experimental lab animals” to help readers understand that these cells were the ultimate guinea pigs for scientists. Skloot also uses “workhorses” to reference the not-so-distant past when black bodies were abused for free and endless labour; this practice is parallel to the use of HeLa.
In writing this book, Rebecca Skloot took a series of risks – even ones that proved to be perilous to her health. These risks include visiting Deborah’s extremely violent and unstable brother, exploring a town known for crimes alone, venturing into the desolate mental institute where Deborah’s sister had been admitted as a young child, and more. The courage that she exhibited in going to these sites is also reflected in her writing: unafraid, frank, and honest in addressing facets of scientific discoveries that people often gloss over: the cruelty in experimentation and the lack of bioethics, especially when it comes to the uneducated, poor, and black communities that Henrietta and her family were parts of. Skloot uncovered what was supporting many of these Nobel laureates and their research, showing the unfortunate irony of how the Lackses do not have funds for their own education, even though HeLa is sold at tens of dollars per vial, distributed and produced millions of times without the consent of any of the Lackses.
Through the lens of the Lacks’s family’s story, this book reveals other aspects of racism and healthcare. Skloot writes about the origin of Johns Hopkins, a hospital meant for the poor in an area heavily populated by African Americans, yet which preys on this population for research specimens. Thus, local people say, “Hopkins and other hospitals abducted black people [and] kidnapped black people for research,” and Skloot admits there are “disturbing truths behind those stories.” Skloot also writes of the lack of informed consent during Henrietta Lacks’s lifetime from 1920 to 1951, doctors who were supporters of eugenics, poor treatment of the poor and mentally ill, and how segregation was still present in society mid-1900s. These occurrences are stark reminders that even though Henrietta Lacks lived less than 70 years ago, the United States was a place that could imperil the rights and health of African Americans.
Thus, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks opens a platform for discussion by scholars and the general public to think about these topics and how they are applicable to their lives, how society – within and outside of the scientific community – has evolved in these past decades in bioethics, especially in relation to racism, classism, and sexism. As Robert Stevenson (a researcher who spent most of his career straightening out communications regarding HeLa) told Skloot, “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you disassociate your materials from the people they come from. But if you could get a sample from Henrietta’s body today and do DNA fingerprinting on it, her DNA would match the DNA in HeLa cells.” Skloot wants the readers of this book to consider the dissonance some scientists experience between the responsibility to their patients (in life and in death) and their goals in research; she achieved her goal brilliantly. This book pays homage to Henrietta Lacks’s life, death, and the immortality her cells achieved. The lessons we have learned from seeing the effects of HeLa on society and on the Lacks family help us face other bioethics questions – from gene editing to organ transplants to usage of animals in experimentations – going forward.
Laan(Rainbow) Yeung is a fourth-year student at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. She hopes to use science learning to educate the general public on life sciences related topics on thestudentscientist.org.