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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is part biography, part science writing. It was published in 2010 and garnered an array of awards. Henrietta Lacks was a young vivacious African-American tobacco farmer, a mother of five, who died in poverty in 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her name lives on in the form of a line of continually dividing cells that have to all intents and purposes become immortal. In the words of Hilary Mantel: ‘No dead woman has done more for the living . . . A fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.

This is by any standards an extraordinary story, or stories, as it encompasses several strands – a fascinating mix of scientific discovery, a moving biography and a discussion of biomedical ethics.

The polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilisation and the identification of HIV have something in common – they were all made possible by HeLa cells, which have been used in medical research all over the world since the 1950s and are still being used today in our response to the Covid pandemic. What makes these cells uniquely valuable and where did they come from? Rebecca Skloot was a biology student when she asked herself these questions – it took her more than ten years to find the answers.

HeLa is a contraction of the name Henrietta Lacks, an attempt to ensure anonymity which succeeded for a while, but the extraordinary properties of HeLa cells made anonymity impossible in the longer term and her name and medical history were inadvertently made public. Henrietta Lacks came from a poor black family of tobacco farmers in Virginia. Her mother died young and she was brought up by her grandfather in what had been the slave cabin where her forebears lived. She married an older cousin and had her first child at 14. At the age of 30 Henrietta developed an aggressive cervical cancer and was treated at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore at the time when a pioneer of cell biology, George Gey, was working there.

Up to this point attempts to culture cells had all ended in failure, but when Gey took cells from Henrietta’s tumour he was amazed to find that unlike other cells they did not age and stop dividing, but continued to multiply at an astonishing rate. He made them freely available to researchers worldwide and from that starting point came advances in biomedical science which have affected all our lives. HeLa cells are immortal but Henrietta herself died at the age of 31 leaving five children. It took the author many years to win the trust of her family and write this remarkable story. The section on biomedical ethics, written from a North American perspective, is perhaps the least successful part of the book but does raise significant issues.

Do read this wonderful biography – which is available in the library – not just for the science, which is very clearly presented, but for the interplay between science, poverty and race, and for the story of Henrietta and her family, who come to life in these pages. Iris Origo once set down the rules by which she thought biographers should abide: ‘humility, enthusiasm, veracity, never sitting in judgement, and never inventing or suppressing anything’, and by these standards The Immortal Life is a triumph

Reviewed by a Library Member