Rebecca Skloot is a journalist and biologist who’s been chasing a story for over ten years, from the first time she was sitting in a classroom and heard the word “HeLa” and the name “Henrietta Lacks.” She immediately recognized that there was a story behind these cells- the first immortal cells ever grown in culture- and that she wanted to tell it.
In 1951, a young black woman, a mother of five, died of cervical cancer after months of treatment. Her name was Henrietta Lacks. When she began her radium treatment (several very graphic descriptions of how they treated cancer in the 50’s, ewww) the doctor who was treating her took, without her permission, a sample of her tumor. He sent these cells to a lab where a particular scientist, George Gey, was trying to grow immortal cells- cells that would never die, just continue dividing forever, and could be used to study everything. So far he’d been met with only failure, and the lab didn’t actually have high hopes for Henrietta’s cells, but then they grew. They kept growing and never died. The scientists labeled the sample ‘HeLa,’ for the first two letters in each of Henrietta’s names. Now scientists had an inexhaustible source of human cells.
The news, when first published, was very sensational. Journalists and pop magazines took the story and blew it up. Scientists began promising that they would soon find the key to real human immortality- but of course, they never did. The did, however, begin to find new treatments for existing diseases, particularly putting an enormous dent in the overall fatality of a cancer diagnoses. They were also able to begin creating vaccines for previously deadly afflictions, such as polio. Virtually all of the advancements science has made in the past fifty years have been somehow touched by HeLa.
That’s the very surface of the science behind this story, but Rebecca wasn’t interested in just the science. She wanted to know about the unwitting ‘donor’ of the cells, Henrietta. What was her story? As it turned out, there were people around who knew Henrietta, but these people were very few, far between, and reluctant to talk. Somehow, Rebecca had to get close to Rebecca’s children and grandchildren, and earn their trust. They felt cheated by previous reporters and lawyers, and Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Henrietta went for treatment and everything started. Today, there a millions of dollars around the world wrapped up in HeLa production and distribution, and Henrietta’s children have never seen a cent of it. Most of the time they’re forced to go without health insurance.
On top of immediate family, Rebecca talked to other people who had lived near Henrietta growing up, doctors who treated her illness, scientists who’d worked with her cells, and new, young innovators who are to this day using HeLa to make even more unheard of advances in health and technology.
Eventually, Rebecca did get close to the family- particularly Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who was only two when her mother died. One of my problems when reading the book (and I do feel a bit insensitive to mention this) is that the only relate-able character is Rebecca. Henrietta, her children, all her cousins, live in a world about as far from modern day Maine as the plantations in 1860. None of them are educated beyond highschool. They’re marrying their cousins. They are deeply religious (this is of course something that millions around the world can relate to, but it was another difference for me). Even when they found out about the HeLa cells (which was over twenty years after Henrietta died), they had basically no idea what it meant. They hardly know what cells are.
Granted, Deborah spent a great amount of time trying to educate herself on the matter, but by the writing of the book she was in her 60s and it was almost impossible for her to understand- when she heard about cloning HeLa, she imagined copies of her mother walking around. When she read that HeLa was being used to test cancer drugs, nuclear weapons, and how human cells survive in space, she imagined all these things happening to her mother. So, I found it very difficult to relate to Deborah, and her ignorant enthusiasm got a little tedious by the conclusion of the book.
Now I must say, this was an utterly fantastic book. It was very science-y, which is not my thing, but it was very interesting. As many have said of the HeLa stories over the years, it’s the perfect mix of science and human interest. I was particularly interested in the story of Henrietta’s older daughter, Elsie, who was epileptic and labeled “simple,” sent to live at The Hospital for the Negro Insane when she was ten, and died there at age fifteen. Forty years later, Deborah and Rebecca are able to visit the hospital and dig up her records. They find out exactly what had probably happened to her; it was disturbing and deeply upsetting for Deborah- horribly fascinating.
In this video, Rebecca Skloot talks about how she came to be writing the book and how people generally receive the story of Henrietta. It’s very interesting to watch.