Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks? Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but I never remember learning about her, even in my college biology classes. The immortality that the title refers to is with regard to her cells, known around the world as HeLa. Mrs. Lacks died in the early ’50’s from cervical cancer, but before she died researchers took a sample of her cells. These cancer cells became the first to survive on their own and reproduce indefinitely. They have been key to important medical research over the last sixty+ years.
Henrietta’s family, her husband and five children, were unaware of her critical contribution to science until well into the ’70’s. Many people even believed HeLa stood for Helen Lane, a made up person, because the research center didn’t want to disclose her real name. Eventually, her family learned about HeLa, but they were still mostly kept in the dark about the extent of her contribution and even the details surrounding Henrietta’s death. Rebecca Skloot, the author of this story, was the first person to really sit down with the Lackses and explain everything to them. This was nearly fifty years after the first HeLa cells were cultured.
HeLa was critical in the development of the polio vaccine, along with various research into other diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and AIDS. HeLa even made it into space in the 1960’s. And what happened to Henrietta? She died less than a year after George Gey first took a sample of her cells. She was 31 years old.
The story about her family is incredibly heartbreaking and so unjust considering what their mother did for the world. Skloot spent most of her time with Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, who was just two years old when her mom passed. Deborah desperately wanted to know more information about her mother. She had no hard feelings toward John Hopkin’s lab, where Henrietta was treated and ultimately passed away, she just wanted answers. Skloot helped to find these answers and was the first person to fully bring Henrietta’s story to the general public. While Deborah was the least resentful of Hopkin’s, she still couldn’t understand how her family was left with nothing after all her mother did. She said, “But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them cells, now we don’t get a dime.” Or as her brother, Lawrence, put it, “She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” While Gey, the researcher that took the first sample of HeLa, did not sell the cells (he purely wanted to help science and so he shared them for free), today companies sell vials of HeLa for anywhere from $100 to $10,000. I cannot comprehend how this would make me feel if I were related to Henrietta. Her family doesn’t have health insurance while big corporations are greedily accepting thousands of dollars for a now infinite resource. It is beyond unjust. There are simply no words to describe it.
Anyways, I highly recommend this book. Happy Friday.