Saturday Read: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

If you read my Saturday posts, you know that I love me some non-fiction, specifically from the science section. Yes, it sounds super nerdy, but let me tell you, the science section houses some of the most interesting and relevant books in all the bookstore. Another one to add to that list is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

If you’ve never heard of Henrietta Lacks, you’re not alone. However, some of you may have heard of HeLa cells. HeLa cells are used in scientific research and have been part of almost every medical breakthrough since the ’50s. And they’re immortal. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

So what is the connection between Henrietta – a poor, black woman from Baltimore – and the trillions of HeLa cells in the world? You won’t believe it, but every single one of those trillions of cells are HERS. Even the name HeLa comes from her name: HEnrietta LAcks. And even more miraculous is the fact that you’re probably more familiar with Henrietta than you think. Odds are, one of the vaccines you’ve received in your life was created from her cells or maybe even contained her cells. Mind-blowing.

In 1951, Henrietta visited John Hopkins complaining of a “knot” in her stomach. She was eventually diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated in the fashion of the day: tubes of radium were sewn onto and in her. However, before beginning the treatment, a doctor took a sample of her tumor and shipped it off to George Gey. Gey had been trying to create immortal cells for years. Up until this point, cells died within a few days in a culture and scientific progress was at somewhat of a standstill. But when Gey cultured Henrietta’s cells, he noticed that the cells weren’t dying – in fact, they were multiplying. The culture grew so quickly that he had to move it to another jar! Gey was fascinated by this immortal cell line. He sent samples to any scientist who asked and eventually HeLa cells were turned into a BILLION-dollar industry.

Despite the fact that Henrietta’s cells were revolutionizing medicine, her family was completely unaware. They didn’t know that cells from her tumor had been taken and given to Gey, or that they were being used to create vaccines and cure diseases. Among others, Henrietta’s cells were used in the creation of the Polio vaccine, AIDS treatments and helped implement “informed consent,” a practice used in every aspect of medical and human research today. The sad thing is, Henrietta’s immediate family was and still is not able to afford health insurance to benefit from any of these discoveries.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Rebecca Skloot has written a truly brilliant book. Not only does she discuss every aspect of medicine that was affected by Henrietta’s cells  (and let me tell you, you will be blown away by how many discoveries are essentially owed to her), she also delves into Henrietta’s family. For years, the Lacks were reluctant to discuss Henrietta and anything to do with her cells, but because Skloot genuinely wanted to help the family and tell Henrietta’s personal story, they obliged. This book is unique in the sea of all the papers written about Henrietta because it truly tells the full story of HeLa cells. Not only their role in science and medicine, but also Henrietta’s role in her family’s lives.

If you like science, or are even interested in human rights and history, you will love “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. I think it’s important to learn about the past and our mistakes. Henrietta’s story is so important and has impacted almost the entire world. Everyone has either been or knows a loved one who was treated with a medicine created using Henrietta’s cells or was vaccinated thanks to her. So pay homage and pick it up!

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