The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks – Book Review

As investigated by writer Rebecca Skloot has taken a decade-long odyssey through the life and family of where she had become part of the lives of Henrietta’s children and grandchildren as Skloot worked here was methodically back to the fateful day when HeLa was born.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, whose skillful writer, researcher and editor, takes use to the small town of Clover, VA where Helen began her life as a sharecropper. She earned a subsistence living, worked the same tobacco land that her grandparents had worked as slaves. We run across Henrietta when she enters the “Health Care Hall of Fame,” as a research team takes biomaterial from Henrietta, never planning to tell her at all what they were going to do with the material.

That they did the same thing to Henrietta’s husband and children is just another of the many examples of dubious African-American/white relations of the 1950s when the encounter happens. Indeed, it takes a full 20 years for the story to unfold as Skloot takes us through the ins and outs of not only the medical research community of the times, but also the knowledge that the family was uncertain of the fate of their ancestor’s biomaterial. The family never realized that HeLa – the stuff not only of viral, bacterial and other studies – was their grandmother’s.

Skloot hints that while the breakthroughs in medicine that have been as a direct result of having access to a pure, mulch-generational root biomaterial, it would also have been nice to have paid the family for the use of Henrietta’s biomaterial, as well as that of other family members from which it was taken and used without their knowledge or recompense.

Skloot puts a human face on HeLa. She has an excellent eye for detail and introduces the family members who, like Henrietta, were never paid, but whose biomaterial was also made part of the testing.

The funny thing is, readers are constantly reminded, that the methods used to “harvest” biomateirals in the 1950s were considered the proper way to handle things in the 1950s when a small needle was inserted into Henrietta’s arm – with the words “little stick” following the insertion. The medical establishment believed it had the right and responsibility to do this.

More to the point, as Skloot indicates through her controlled and deceptively simple, yet effective, writing is a world that is two generations removed from us, when such practices were the norm and not the exception.

It might interest Henrietta to know that if placed on a very big metrical scale, the amount of biomaterial created from that “little stick” is in the millions of metric tons and the work that researchers has been worthwhile.

Skloot is an excellent, accomplished author, who seems to have taken the time to write something a little more insightful than others.