Ridge Writers on Books: ’The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

Review By ANTHONY BECKER

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” documents the history of the immortal HeLa cell line, the life of Henrietta Lacks, from whose body the original HeLa cells were taken, and the decade that author Rebecca Skloot spent researching these subjects with the Lacks family.

The book illuminates racism against African Americans, the peril and promise of biotechnology and the bioethics and medical legislation that bridge the gap between these subjects.

HeLa is a line of cells that reproduces with unlimited generations. The first cell line of this kind, HeLa was used to test Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine before its widespread use, and since then it has been immeasurably important in developing the fields of cell culture, virology and genetics. Without HeLa, there would be no biotechnology as we know it today. Reproduction and distribution of HeLa cells is at the core of a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Yet, since the discovery of these miracle cells 60 years ago, little thought has been given to their origin. “HeLa” stands for Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom these cells came. An African American tobacco farmer, she moved from her family farm in Clover, Va.,, to Turner Station, Md., in 1941. There she developed cervical carcinoma and was treated at the nearby Johns Hopkins hospital, one of few hospitals in the area that treated African Americans. That was where the HeLa cells were taken from her body.

After Henrietta’s death in 1951, decades passed before her husband and children learned of the amazing developments in science that her cells were responsible for. In the midst of the family’s struggles with poverty and the frenzy surrounding this revelation, the author of this book came into contact with them. The years she spent trying to gain the family’s trust flourished into a decade of adventure uncovering the history of the Lacks family, the biotech industry and the HeLa cells.

An absorbing read, this incredibly important book combines science history with family pathos on an epic level, its story spanning six decades and involving dozens of important figures. Extremely well written, “The Immortal Life” is as entertaining as it is educational and makes the perfect gift for students of the life sciences or anyone interested in the history of medicine.

This weekly column is written by members of the Ridge Writers, the East Sierra Branch of the Califor-nia Writers Club. Meetings are held the first Wednesday evening of each month at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church, and free programs are offered throughout the year. Ridge Writers’ book “Planet Mojave: Visions From a World Apart” is available at Carriage Inn, Jawbone Station, the Historic USO Building, the Maturango Museum, Red Rock Books and www.planetmojave. com.

Story First Published: 2013-09-04