The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot fulfills the category “Book about or by a Woman in STEM” for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge. It doesn’t quite fit the category as it’s only Mrs. Lacks’ cells that are in STEM, but boy, they are important. Also, I thought this an appropriate choice to begin Black History Month.
My husband read it years ago and recommended it to me. I’m not a big non-fiction reader, but I put in on my TBR (to-be-read) list. I forgot all about it until the prompt for a woman in STEM came up and being February, I grabbed the audio.
The book was not what I expected, in a good way. I thought it would be pages and pages about the science, which is cool and all. But it can be dry and dare I say boring. This story was anything but. Ms. Skloot created an engaging narrative that both captured the reader in the science and the impact of it on the world and Henrietta’s family. I assumed it would entail a short biography of Mrs. Lacks, then a long science journal. Instead, I was treated to a journey of discovery, failure, triumph, and heartbreak.
Here’s the low-down. Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. The surgeon took a sample of her cells to be used for science experiments. In the 50s, no consent was required. Even today, the use of patient cells and consent for use is a twisted, dangerous road. Hers were the first cells scientists were able to preserve and grow in a lab.
And grow they did.
They were out of control with growth. And for that reason, the cells were shared, experimented on, and multiplied. They are still widely used today.
The cells were used to help create a vaccine for polio, settled the debate over the number of chromosomes in a human cell, improved cell culture (creating and storing cells for experiments), added the human genome understanding, went into space, got blown up in a nuclear device, and so much more. Fantastic, right? They’re immortal and essential to some of the greatest scientific discoveries today.
And there’s always one…
Mrs. Lacks’ family knew nothing about Henrietta’s amazing cells. The book takes the time to explore with family members. We see the impact, the discovery, and the heartbreak of Henrietta living on through these cells. All that time the daughter, and sons never knew what was happening, never had control, never really understood the entire situation.
The author worked with the family, but only after they grew to trust her. And even then, things got strained, and they turned away. Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, was key to telling the story with a heart. We all struggled with her to understand the science but also to deal with the loss of a parent, the chains of race and poverty, and the cruelty inflicted on the unaware.
For me, the story came to life by following the science trail with Deborah. I laughed, I cried, I got scared. Ms. Skloot created an amazing narrative with a very tough subject. Through her book, we can all better understand cell culture and the huge issues that surround it. But also we can see, in an era of intolerance, racism, and bigotry, that one black woman changed the world for all of us. Henrietta Lacks was the superhero of the century and she never knew. I’m so glad Ms. Skloot wrote this book to inform us and her family about Henrietta’s amazing contribution to science. (God, it doesn’t sound like praise enough for all those cells did…)
Read it. Discover, learn, and thank Mrs. Henrietta Lacks.
I give The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Five HeLa vials.