Fascinating Work of Non-Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


Most advances in health and medicine since the 1950s have come about because of the HeLa line of human cells. HeLa cells have been readily available for purchase by researchers and scientists since they were discovered and cultivated by George Gey in 1951.

Author Rebecca Skloot remembers hearing her high school school science teacher attribute the HeLa line of cells to an unknown woman named Helen Lane. The name made sense since cells’ names were composed of the first two letters of the donor’s first and last name. Unfortunately, the name was a hoax and the hoax was intentional. Some years later, Skloot would pursue the real woman behind the HeLa line of cells, Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American wife and mother living in Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. When Henrietta developed cervical cancer, she went to Johns Hopkins for care. The hospital at that time was completely segregated but did provide low-income patients with basic medical care. They were not able to cure Henrietta who died a horrific death within the hospital walls only months after her diagnosis.

During the initial stages of her treatment, hospital personnel working for a researcher named George Gey did a biopsy of Henrietta’s cervix without her knowledge or consent. Up until that time, all cells he cultured had died but Henrietta’s cells would prove to be immortal. Thus began the story of HeLa.

Skloot’s work contrasts the story of the HeLa line of cells and their incredible history with the saga of the Lacks family. Henrietta’s family would not understand the part she played in history until Skloot approached them about her book. One of Henrietta’s adult children points out the irony in the fact that HeLa cells have reaped companies and individuals billions of dollars while most of Henrietta’s family can not afford health care.

As good as any medical thriller and it’s all true. A comment on the history of race relations in our country. Reserve this title on-line through the Library’s website or visit us at the Information Desk. Ask us for other exciting books for reading or holiday gift-giving.


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