Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

A friend of mine plays cricket recreationally and is not embarrassed to admit that his team sucks. Going into a match he is at peace with the prospect of imminent defeat and makes a decision that his is not to win, his is just to play. If he can take some wickets and have fun with his friends in the process, then that is enough for him. As a person with a competitive streak and an all or nothing attitude who has struggled for years against a need for perfection, I was somewhat taken aback by his acceptance of his limitations and readiness to lose. I must admit though, that allowing oneself a little room for failure is in fact quite liberating. This is especially so if one makes a point of recognizing opportunities for, and celebrating small victories or minor accomplishments along a journey one knows will end in defeat. I have heard it said that accomplishing a goal is not nearly as important as what you become in the pursuit of it.

A couple of weeks ago I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. When I bought this non-fictitious work I had very high expectations. This would be an inspiring story about a black woman’s immeasurable contribution to medical science and humanity. Then I read the first two pages which were praise for the book from The Times, New York Times, Metro, the guy who wrote Fast Food Nation and others. They spoke of racism, greed, exploitation, scientific ethics and crippling poverty. After I read words like thorny, provocative, harrowing, idealism and faith I figured it would be an uplifting story about triumph over adversity and justice for a disenfranchised family. I mean, let’s face it, immortality can’t come easy. Well…

Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Credit TBA
I want you to read this book. Go to a bookstore and buy it as soon as you can because everything I am about to write about it is shamefully and vastly inadequate. I know this. So I want you to read it yourself because it deserves to be read and you deserve to know this richly and skillfully told story. What is it about, then? A woman called Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells and the life of Henrietta Lacks’ family.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks: a sixth grade educated woman who grew up in a log cabin previously inhabited as slave quarters by her very own ancestors on a small tobacco farm in the American south. She married her cousin David and they moved to Turner Station not far from Baltimore. She died of a vicious case of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951 after months of indescribable physical pain and failed radiation therapy that only managed to char her insides black, having no effect on the tenacious tumors that covered her organs. She was thirty-one years old and a mother of five.

HeLa: cells grown from a tissue sample obtained from Henrietta Lacks’ cervix during an operation at Johns Hopkins. They are the world’s first immortal human cell line. HeLa cells have been growing continuously in culture for decades. This very day, in labs all over the world, billions of her cells are used as a hardy and resilient workhorse for all kinds of scientific exploit. They have been used in research on cancer, HIV, polio, STDs, appendicitis, the effects of working in sewers and a host of other studies… HeLa cells have been used to develop treatments for haemophilia, leukemia, herpes, Parkinson’s disease and many other ailments. As long as they have nutrients Henrietta’s cervical cells don’t die. They have outlived her by fifty years and they were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent, nor that of her family.

HeLa Cells Fluorescing

HeLa Cells Dividing

Lacks Home
The Lackses were black people living in America at a time when black people were very much second class citizens. Their lives were punctuated with all the usual symptoms of systemic socio-economic and social disenfranchisement: lack of education, physical and sexual abuse, relentless poverty, substance and alcohol abuse, untreated health issues and uninformed risky behavior. If ever there was a family with limited prospects it was the Lackses. 

Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter.

After her mother’s death, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter Deborah was confused and plagued with fear by what she heard had become of her mother’s body parts. She and the family also had a strong sense of having been robbed of something or taken advantage of given the wide use of these cells in the scientific community. Henrietta’s family was angry and wanted someone to pay. It somehow seemed surreal to them that Henrietta’s cells were sent up into space or blown up in an atomic bomb while her husband and children remained in abject poverty. However, decades after losing her mother Deborah came to a point where she acknowledged that despite being the daughter of someone who had (unknowingly) made an invaluable contribution to the world, she and her family had many inherent limitations that they would never overcome. They would never be able to fight the corporations and researchers making money off her mother’s cells and exact any kind of financial recompense; they would never be able to obtain an apology from those they felt had done them wrong. The Lackes had neither the intellectual nor financial tools to beat those who were exploiting them. 

Deborah Lacks-Pullum
So Deborah did what my friend did with his cricket. She made it about small personal accomplishments and freed herself of the burden of wanting a big win. This poor and uneducated woman took it upon herself to school herself on HeLa and understand what it meant for a part of her mother to be “immortal.” She went back to school; she “Googled” HeLa research and attended symposia and conferences where HeLa cells were used. She decided that Henrietta’s legacy or her big win should be that her grandchildren and great grandchildren would be better educated than she was and become more than the sum of the suffering of their forebears. Today, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation has been set up by Rebecca Skloot in order to support the educational development of Henrietta’s descendants. A fitting legacy I reckon.


  1. Thank you for this interesting post. Very informative. We take so much for granted.

  2. This book was an extremely well-researched story about a compelling character named Henrietta Lakes, who was the subject of controversial cell research. The family did not have privy to any of the research information until after Henrietta was dead, but the value of the knowledge gained from the replication of her cells has lived on to make so great strides in the study of many diseases and breakthroughs in the science field.