The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Daniel’s mother was kind enough to let me borrow the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  I’m a biologist.  Specifically, I’ve taken a lot of genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology classes.  All throughout my college career, professors talked about experiments done with HeLa cells.  When asked what HeLa cells were, one of my professors simply replied that they were an immortal human cell line.  No explanation regarding the name was given.

This book details the life, death, and “afterlife” of Henrietta Lacks, and her cervical cancer cells that were taken without her consent at Johns Hopkins.  This was done back in the 1950’s, and her cells are still being used for research today.  Henrietta died in 1951, after losing the battle with cancer.  The book focuses not just on these phenomenal cells that have lead to a number of scientific and medical discoveries including the first visualization of chromosomes and the HPV vaccine, but also on Henrietta herself, including her history and her family.  Her family continues to live in poverty, unable to afford basic healthcare.  This, despite the fact that many scientists have made a fortune off of Henrietta’s cells.  The name “HeLa” comes from the first two letters of her first and last name.  The book also discusses medical ethics and the changes that have been made since the early to middle 20th century due to scenarios like this.

It’s a riveting book, and I’ve wanted to read it ever since I StumbledUpon a link that gave a brief history of Henrietta and her family.  Before I found this story, I was clueless as to the origin of these cells.  After reading this short article, I did some research and found out about this fascinating book that had been written about her.  I’m so glad that I’m finally getting the chance to read it.  Whether you’re curious about the woman whose cells continue to thrive 60 years after her death or you want to read about a time before basic standards of medical ethics were in place, it’s a great read, with historically and scientifically interesting context.

Cloudy day, taken last weekend.

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