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Yale J Biol Med. 2010 September; 83(3): 165.
Published online 2010 September.
PMCID: PMC2946133

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reviewed by Laura Ciaccia

Rebecca Skloot 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
2010. Crown Publishing: New York. ISBN: (Hardcover) 978-1400052172. US $26 384 p

If you are employed in a biomedical laboratory, it is likely that you have worked with HeLa cells. Dependable and hardy, these cells have been used for all manner of scientific research: They’ve been shot into space, exposed to radiation, and treated with cocktails of steroids, hormones, cosmetics, and infectious agents. They were used to develop the polio vaccine, visualize and analyze chromosomes, and tease apart the choreography of mitosis. Countless discoveries have relied on HeLa, and if you have these cells growing in your incubator or stocked away in your lab’s freezer, you know firsthand how valuable they are.

What you may not know is HeLa’s extraordinary origin story, which is the focus of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Previously, very little was known about Ms. Lacks, the Baltimore woman from whom HeLa cells were derived, other than that she was a young black patient in the segregated cancer ward at Johns Hopkins. Through meticulous research, including interviews with the Lacks family, Skloot constructs a more complete portrait of Henrietta Lacks: beautiful, vivacious, and selflessly concerned for her family throughout her unsuccessful treatment for cervical cancer. Lacks died when she was 31 years old, unaware that the cells taken from her without her knowledge or consent would one day become a famous experimental tool.

In her book, Skloot positions the story of Lacks and HeLa within the larger context of the history of biomedical research during the early and mid-twentieth century, an era in which ethics were murky or absent, researchers built their own laboratory equipment from scratch, and cell culture was thought of as witchcraft. By doing so, Skloot demonstrates that HeLa gave rise not only to scientific discovery but the development and standardization of vital research practices, such as sterile tissue culture and National Institutes of Health-imposed ethical guidelines. Skloot juxtaposes these significant advances with the injurious effects that HeLa has had on the Lacks family, which has been harassed by scientists and journalists alike, suggesting that scientific progress unchecked by ethical practice generates victims.

This sprawling, engaging book is an essential read for those interested in bioethics and the history of science, as well as anyone who has ever wondered about the woman behind the first immortalized human cell line. The book begins with a quotation from the writer Elie Wiesel: “…we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” This statement refers not only to Henrietta Lacks, but also to the history of biomedical research, which includes misdeeds and mistakes intermingled with successes and triumphs.

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