My book club is the only reason I read anything that isn’t fiction. Sometimes I drag myself through our non-fiction books, sometimes I find myself enjoying them more than I ever expected. The latter was the case this month as we met to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman living in Baltimore, MD, in the 40s. She and her husband Day (David) were raising four of their five children when Henrietta began complaining about feeling something growing in her womb. She put off going to a doctor, got pregnant, had her fifth and final child, and finally went to Johns Hopkins to see what it was growing inside her. As it turns out, Henrietta had cervical cancer. Despite aggressive radium treatment, her health did not improve; Henrietta’s cancer spread, quickly, throughout her body and quickly took her life at the incredibly young age of 30. Before her death, however, one of her doctors removed some tissues from her tumor in order to study them. These cells turned out to be the first (or one of the first) immortal cells in modern history, and paved the way for an incredible amount of medical advances including treatments for cancer.
Skloot’s book balances a history of the science of cell cultures and medical research with that of the family Henrietta left behind. Her four living children and widow were completely ignorant of their mother’s contributions to medicine for 20 years after her death. Even after they were made aware, their lack of a strong education left them ill-prepared to confront the myriad scientific papers, books, magazines, etc., with which they were presented by scientists and doctors either too busy or too socially inept to dumb things down enough for them to understand. This left each family member paranoid, angry, and uninformed about the tissues from the long dead mother they barely knew. Over about a decade, Rebecca traveled to Baltimore and Henrietta’s hometown in Clover, VA, to learn more about the mysterious source of the now-famous HeLa cells.
This book is an easier read than I anticipated. Skloot does a decent job of bringing the scientific aspects of this story to a level that is easily digestible by your average reader. There are definitely times when my eyes glazed over a little, but for the most part even the chapters that covered how the research was done, what it was used for, and the implications of human tissue studies kept me engrossed enough to complete the book. The story of Henrietta’s family is a far more interesting one, as it’s a human story of a family that, despite having a mother whose cells paved the way for tons of medical advancements, cannot afford health insurance to cover even regular doctor visits.
Immortal Life successfully provoked a lot of discussion around ethics and science in my book club’s meeting this month. Skloot does a good job of not really pointing you one way or the other; instead, she lays out both the pros and cons of human tissue testing and sampling and leaves the reader to form their own opinions. What Skloot does obviously intend, however, is that we begin to think about the humanity behind the cold science. HeLa cells came from a woman, a person; she was a mother, wife, cousin, aunt, and daughter. Perhaps we as a society would do better to remember that, rather than viewing these cells as a commodity to be traded in a capitalist market.