While I love a good work of fiction, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a reminder that some of the most incredible stories are the ones that come from real life.
Henrietta Lacks was an African American tobacco farmer from Virginia, who made medical history when cells from her cancerous tumour became the first immortal cell line cultured for research. She would never know of her contribution to science because she died from cervical cancer at the age of 31.
In 1951, while undergoing treatment for her condition, a doctor took samples of her cervical tissue for further examination. He found that her cells were unique in that they could be kept alive and grown in a laboratory setting. It was a very important breakthrough in the field at that time. The cells were given the handle Hela and distributed among researchers in the scientific community, and most notably, led to the discovery of the Polio vaccine.
Over next few decades, Henrietta’s cells made their way around the world, helping doctors and researchers make immeasurable progress in everything from cancer treatments to depression. Meanwhile, things were not so great for Henrietta’s family. Life was rough for the widower and five young children she’d left behind. Motherless, her children struggled though their lives which were plagued with violence, illness and poverty. Ironically, her family would never be able to afford many of the treatments and pharmaceuticals their mother’s cells made possible, nor would they even be aware of their existence.
The author does an incredible job of weaving together the many threads of this story. She celebrates the Hela cells and all they have helped to accomplish, while at the same time, exposing the darker side of medical research. In doing so, she explores the difficult ethical questions that surround the field, along with it’s history and future. At the same time she puts a human face on the cells, that were known for so long in the field as just a commodity. As she conducted her research for the book, she cultivated a relationship with Henrietta’s family, especially her youngest daughter, and that complicated friendship serves as a backbone for the multi faceted book.
If you decide to read this book (and I recommend that you do), I have a few words to the wise: clear your schedule, have some tissues handy and prepare yourself for an emotional roller coaster.