Henrietta Lacks, a poor, married, African American mother of five, died at 31 in Baltimore from a vicious form of cervical cancer. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital and after her death there in 1951, researchers harvested some of her tumor cells. This wasn’t unusual. Though Lacks consented to treatment, no one asked permission to take her cells; the era’s scientists considered it fair to conduct research on patients in public wards since they were being treated for free. What was unusual was what happened next.
Doctors needed human cells to study cervical cancer’s progression, but despite decades of effort they had been unable to keep human cells alive in culture. “Henrietta’s were different: They reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours, and they never stopped,” writes Rebecca Skloot, a science journalist, in her new book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. “They became the first immortal cells ever grown in a laboratory.”
They also became famous. Labeled HeLa, they were at first given away free to any researcher who asked. By 1952, they were being mass-produced at Tuskegee Institute (ironically, at the same time the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study was being conducted on unsuspecting and untreated black men), then sent to polio centers nationwide to test the efficacy of the new Salk vaccine. They “grew like crabgrass in laboratories around the world” and went up in the second satellite ever in orbit, Skloot writes. “By the 1960s, Henrietta’s cells were everywhere: The general public could grow HeLa at home using instructions from a Scientific American do-it-yourself article.”
Lacks, however, remained largely unknown. When Skloot began her 10-year quest for the woman whose unstoppable cell line had saved millions of lives, HeLa cells had been variously attributed to Helen Lane, Helen Larson, even actress Hedy Lamarr. Given the medical breakthroughs they enabled, one sees why the mystery of Henrietta’s identify and the fate of her family fascinated Skloot. HeLa had helped unlock the secrets of cancer and various viruses and been essential to the development of in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. A multibillion-dollar industry had grown from their sale and distribution, yet Lacks’ family had received no financial compensation and virtually no recognition beyond their exploitation by a few journalists. The irony of the Lacks’ marginal economic status and inadequate health care was not lost on Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. “If our mother’s cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?” she asked.
The interactions between Skloot, a white woman, and the initially wary Lacks family contribute to this fascinating story. Of her relationship with Deborah, Skloot says, “We formed a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I became a character in her story, and she in mine.” What emerges from Skloot’s relentless investigative reporting and Deborah’s implacable desire to gain recognition for her mother is a sweeping account of race, gender, ethics, class, economics, science and medical treatment and how they intersect in U.S. society. It illuminates what happens when medical research is conducted within an unequal health-care system and delivers an American narrative fraught with intrigue, tragedy, triumph, pathos and redemption.