Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Exploited victim’s brilliant bequest

By Michelene Wandor, July 28, 2010
Rebecca Skloot: riveting revelations

Rebecca Skloot: riveting revelations

By Rebecca Skloot
Macmillan, £18.99

'Hela" is the native name for Sri Lanka. It is also a seaside resort in Poland. HeLa, however, is a shorthand reference to the "world's first immortal cells" - taken from the virulent cancer which killed their unknowing, black donor, Henrietta Lacks, in 1951.

The cells survived and multiplied with vigour, becoming a major contributor to medical research, speeding the development of polio vaccine, helping in the new field of virology to prevent measles, herpes, and later treating Aids. They were sent into space by the US and the USSR during the Cold War and were instrumental in cell-cloning, and the journey to the Human Genome Project. It is, on the face of it, a story of scientific triumph, but it is also a story fraught with emotional and ethical questions.

Rebecca Skloot's riveting book weaves back and forth in time, unravelling a series of detective-like stories. Henrietta was unknown until an article in Rolling Stone in 1976 revealed not only that she was black, but also that no one had sought permission to use her cells for research. Her real name was not published until 1985.

At the time, there was no formal research supervision in the USA and litigation over "tissue-rights" continues there to this day. The Lacks family continued to be "used" without their knowledge. One scientist visited them years after Henrietta's death, taking blood under false pretences, telling them they needed to be tested for cancer.

The family are the heart of the story and Skloot develops a gradual, nurtured relationship with them. By promising to tell the truth about Henrietta, she overcomes their suspicions, establishing a close, if stormy, rapport with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, who embarks on an autodidactic quest, reading scientific texts to understand what happened to her mother's cells. In the most harrowing section of the book, Skloot recounts the painful moments when, together, they discover the truth about Henrietta's death, and the incarceration of sister Elsie in a hospital for the "Negro Insane".

Skloot conveys the ethical, the scientific and the personal in cool, precise language - though she briefly explodes into emotion when Deborah, sleepless and hallucinating, attacks her. In the end, however, passionate and responsible authorship wins out.

Though Henrietta's remains lie in an unmarked grave, she has achieved a kind of immortality. In a phrase Deborah uses to Skloot: "Everything about Henrietta dead, except them cells". But this book helps Henrietta's story to live on.

Michelene Wandor's latest book is 'The Art of Writing Drama' (Methuen)

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011