I’d heard plenty about Henrietta Lacks when this stormer of a book was released, and decided to read it between reading this fascinating interview with the author about her writing process and having very minor surgery over Christmas. Perhaps my medical squick level had been tamped down enough for the grisly details not to deter me. I’d been fired up about the social costs of commercialising women’s health after seeing Pink Ribbons, Inc, last year, and this book ties in with some of those themes. But it’s more ambitious than just a diatribe, and ranges wider than a bit of popular science. Instead, it covers African-American history, sociology, cancer research, academic tiffs, family entanglements, and uncovers a truly astonishing story about one of the most influential people who has ever lived.
Henrietta Lacks was the source of the HeLa cells, the first immortal human cells developed for research in a lab. Her legacy is mind-boggling – the malignant cells originally taken from her tumour have been reproduced billions of times, and they have been used across the board in medical research of all kinds, including space exploration and polio treatment, the Cold War, HIV and cancer research. HeLa underpins much of what medicine can do for us today. It’s the Coca-Cola of cell tissue, as ubiquitous in labs as white coats and caged rats.
But when Rebecca Skloot decided to uncover the story of the woman behind HeLa she found that the Lacks family had endured terrible hardships because of the cells. Henrietta’s family had been treated exceptionally shoddily by a medical establishment blown away by the importance of HeLa, and were suspicious to the point of violence by Skloot’s interest.
Fascinating, unsettling, and moving, it’s an excellent read, worthy without feeling weighty, as gripping as any thriller. The afterword about the legal and ethic morass of tissue donation was a bit dry, and I did side-eye the author’s nine solid pages of acknowledgements (including her barista – honey, slow your roll), but it’s still an example of great contemporary journalism.