- One Life, Many Stories
Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is a luminous, transfiguring, and true story of a journalist’s quest to learn about the woman whose cancerous cervical tissue became HeLa, the first line of immortal human cells. It is a story of the ingenuity and precision of George and Margaret Gey and their lab technicians, who nurtured the hardy cells and shared them readily with the scientific community. It is a story of the scientific legacy of those cells, from their crucial use in the development of the polio vaccine and the fields of virology and genetics to their misuse as a catalyst for ethical oversight of human research. This book is also a tribute to the human legacy of those cells, including the struggle of Henrietta’s family to understand the strange information thrust upon them long after her death—that some part of Henrietta was still alive—and the heroic mission of Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, to learn the most basic and poignant facts about her mother, who died when she was two.
In addition to all of this richness, the book also gives us a very human context for the ethics of tissue research, from consent to privacy to commercialization. HeLa cells have been the subject of over sixty thousand scientific papers and have created enormous wealth for many in the field of biotechnology, and yet the children of Henrietta Lacks cannot afford health insurance.
Henrietta Pleasant was an African American woman whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners. She grew up in Clover, Virginia, with an extended family that included her cousin, David Lacks. In 1941, when she was twenty, she and David got married and found their way to Baltimore, where jobs for blacks were plentiful in the wartime boom. They lived in Turner Station, about twenty miles from the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Henrietta would soon be diagnosed with, treated for, and, in 1951, die from aggressive cervical cancer. Hopkins was rare among U.S. hospitals. It had been founded in the late nineteenth century with a bequest to provide care to the sick and indigent “without regard to sex, age, or color.” So although Hopkins—like most institutions at the time—segregated black and white patients, it was also the only nearby hospital that would have admitted Henrietta at all.
In her vivid and carefully woven narrative, Skloot describes the origins of cell culture in George Gey’s lab and explains how the pairing of George’s resourcefulness and Margaret’s uncompromising application of sterile principles provided the means for the culture, storage, and transport of HeLa cells. She explains how the cells made their careful way to labs around the world tucked in the shirt pocket of airline pilots and stewards. The discovery that Henrietta’s cells—labeled HeLa by Gey’s technician—were essentially irrepressible coincided with one of the largest public health initiatives in history: the development of the polio vaccine. Because HeLa cells proved to be unusually susceptible to the polio virus, they became the basis for confirming the effectiveness of the lifesaving Salk vaccine. In describing this triumph, Skloot illustrates one of the many strange and painful ironies that populate the book. The large-scale production of HeLa cells used in the eradication of polio took place at the Tuskegee Institute and gave employment and prominence to many black scientists at the same time and on the same campus as the U.S. Public Health Service and scientists at the institute and in local public health departments were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment. This forty-year experiment, which deprived black men of standard antibiotic treatment for syphilis in order to see what would happen to them if the disease took its natural course, has immeasurably damaged the trust that American blacks have in the health care system.
It was shortly after the revelation of the Tuskegee experiments that the Lacks family first learned about Henrietta’s cells—quite by accident—from a neighbor’s visiting relative who worked...