In 1951, Henrietta Lacks passed away due to complications arising from cervical cancer. Following her death, cancerous cells were harvested from her body and used in ongoing experiments regarding the growth of cells outside the human body. Previous to Henrietta, scientists could only make it a few days before the cells would ultimately die, forcing them to start all over. Henrietta’s cells were different, they grew at an astounding rate and researchers were able to keep them alive. Since the discovery, they’ve been used in countless experiments and led to numerous scientific breakthroughs – most notably the polio vaccine.
Today, Henrietta’s cells usually go for a few hundred dollars a vial but her descendants live in poverty. While many of her children believe they should be compensated for the sale of HeLa cells, court cases involving similar claims have always found in favor of research companies rather than individuals – the argument being that once a procedure is performed and tissue is removed from a body, it is no longer of use to the individual and the hospital can do with it as it pleases, be it incineration or study. On one hand, it makes sense given that it was highly doubtful Henrietta’s husband could have opened a cellular research facility, however, the problem lies within the fact that researchers did not tell Henrietta’s family about the importance of HeLa cells and lied to her children when additional bloodwork was requested for further study.
The story of the Lacks family is a heartbreaking one. Henrietta had a terrible upbringing and following her death, things became that much worse for her children. While the book mainly concentrates on the HeLa cells, there’s a shocking piece on her daughter Elsie, who had been diagnosed with “idiocy” and institutionalized at Crownsville Hospital Centre (a.k.a. The Hospital for the Negro Insane) following her mother’s death. The conditions at the time of Elsie’s arrival were deplorable. They had a total of eight attendants (four in the day, four in the evening) for five hundred and sixty patients. One ward in particular had seventy eight patients with only twenty eight beds. There were also only three toilets to share amongst them all. You can imagine how much this upset the family when they found out decades later.
While The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks can be deeply upsetting, it is without a doubt an important book. Author Rebecca Skloot spent years interviewing the Lacks family (which at times was certainly no easy task) and researching Henrietta’s life and death, all information that had been buried over time. The story flows well and her afterword provides greater insight into the legal ramifications of future soft tissue research. Henrietta’s youngest daughter Deborah always wanted the world to know about the person behind the HeLa cells, the real human being who provided the ammunition for several medical discoveries. Thanks to Rebecca’s tireless work, Henrietta Lacks’ incredible true story is out there for the world to see.