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BOOK REVIEW - by Diane McCurdy - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


BOOK REVIEW - by Diane McCurdy
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Diane McCurdy 

Even though The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published a couple of years ago, the paperback edition has reappeared several times recently on the best seller list. The book seems to have an immortal life just like its protagonist. Non-fiction, the story is strange and beyond bizarre. It is at once a mystery, a social commentary, a scientific treatise and an adventure. Rebecca Skloot, a journalist, with detective sleuthing skills and dogged dedication sketches out a flesh and blood picture of Ms. Lacks whose story if it were fiction would be deemed unbelievable. It took the author ten years to assemble all the facts and aided by Henrietta's daughter she puts a human face on a medical event and turns it into a masterful bit of story telling.

After Henrietta's mother died giving birth to her tenth child, her overwhelmed father divided his brood up amongst relatives. From the tobacco fields of Virginia, Henrietta was sent to live with her kin in Baltimore. An African American descendant of slaves but with a white great grandfather, she gave birth to her first child at fourteen, another birth followed and shortly thereafter she married her first cousin who was the father of her children. Her husband was a philanderer who gave Henrietta three more children as well as syphilis and gonorrhea. After the birth of her last son at John Hopkins, the only hospital that treated black patients, she began hemorrhaging. It was then, in 1951, at the age of thirty Henrietta succumbed to a particularly brutal and violently aggressive form of cervical cancer. Unbeknownst to her or her family, cells were taken from her tumor and the rest of her story becomes mythical in scope, the stuff of legends. Her cells not only lived outside the body, they thrived in a Petri dish. To scientists, this breakthrough was phenomenal. Known as HeLa cells, they became instrumental in innumerable medical advances.

If there is a flaw in the narrative it is that Skloot tacitly seems to insinuate that somehow Henrietta was raped of her cells. That she was given free surgery and treatment was not emphasized nor was the fact that the taking of specimens without written permission of the patient or the family was standard procedure at the time. Perhaps a little white liberal guilt slips into her analysis as she implies that the Lacks family plagued with incest, abuse, poverty and lawlessness should somehow have been compensated. The irony, of course, is that what took Henrietta's life has saved the lives of millions.

Multi-million dollar industries are flourishing because of them. Twenty tons of her cells have been cultured. Eleven thousand patents revolve around their use. They were instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine. They are used in gene mapping and cloning. They have shown us how viruses work and how cancer develops. They have even been rocketed into space! Henrietta's story is told with a richness that haunts and raises many ethical questions about healthcare and patient privilege.