In 1951 a young black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks came to Johns Hopkins with cervical cancer. Doctors took her cells, grew them in a dish, and created the famed HeLa cell line. It was HeLa cells that created the cornerstone of some of the 20th century’s greatest medical advances.
One small detail: The treating physicians who took Henrietta’s cells never asked permission.
This story of the famed HeLa cell line is the subject of Rebecca Skloot’s recent book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In this thorough, well-referenced debut book, Skloot resurrects the once sketchy HeLa story and weaves it into a compelling narrative that sits squarely at the intersection of medicine, race, ethics, and patient rights. Perhaps most importantly, the depiction of Henrietta’s family offers a critical window into the vulnerable mind of the medically unsophisticated – A population at risk for passive exploitation by the medical profession.
As fascinating as Henrietta’s story is the path to the publication for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Beyond its germination in Skloot’s community college biology class and her relentless pursuit of the jaded Lacks family, the story of how she endured three publishers and personal turmoil make for an equally compelling story.
Indepenent of her dogged persistence, Rebekka Skloot is an impressive writer. Her capacity for such riveting nonfiction puts her in the category of one of my favorite contemporary authors, Steven Berlin Johnson.
This one is worth a read.
Check out interviews with Rebecca Skloot: LA Times, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian Magazine