Teachers who are thinking outside the box will let you read this for your biography/memoir assignment, and what a great opportunity!
The story of Henrietta Lacks is more than a biography of an individual woman, It’s the story of the first person’s cells that scientists could cause to grow in a lab—that could live outside the body and be shipped around the world, thus making new research possible. It’s the story of a family that knew nothing of the cells or the fact that they had been removed from the cancer-stricken and dying Henrietta. It’s about the effect that this medical miracle had on Henrietta’s children. It’s about medical treatment for African-Americans in the 1950s South.
Henrietta Lacks grew up in poverty in Clover,Virginia in the segregated, pre-civil-rights-era South. Her family were tobacco farmers, and the house she was raised in was once slave quarters. (The author discovers a white branch of the Lacks family, but they refuse to acknowledge their biological connection to Henrietta.) Amazingly, before Henrietta died on October 4, 1951, cells taken at Johns Hopkins Hospital during a gynecological exam for her cervical cancer had become the first cells to be cultured in a lab and survive. The cells, known as HeLa, were so strong, that they could be shipped to medical labs everywhere. These cells become the necessary component for medical advances such as the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, understanding the effects of nuclear bombs, and part of the search for a cure for AIDS.
Knowing this, you’d think that Henrietta’s children would have become wealthy. Ironically, they spent years without medical insurance, and for twenty years, didn’t even know that their mother’s cells existed. They couldn’t afford the benefits of the research done with their mother’s cells. In fact, they suffered from secrets as well as con men. Especially hard hit was Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who, without the educational background necessary to understand how the cells survived, became prey to every report that her mother had been cloned or that her cells had been fused with those of other life forms.
Part of this biography of Henrietta and her cells is about the sad way that African-Americans were treated in medical experiments. (In this sense, Henrietta’s daughter Elise, who was sent to a state hospital and diagnosed with “Idiocy”—and then experimented on in a horrific manner—is just as interesting as Henrietta’s story.) But part of this book details the fascinating fact that no one has any rights over their cells, their discarded tissues. Even if this tissue becomes valuable, as Henrietta’s did, and makes millions of dollars for the companies and individuals that market it, it is considered a waste product, trash that the individual has discarded. (And most of the time tissue/cells aren’t worth anything—people have moles, appendixes, and gallbladders removed all the time.) So the horrible way that the Lacks family was treated also figured into the rise of bioethics—of getting informed consent from patients before using their tissue for medical experiments.
This great book embraces so many themes. Deborah’s life with its grounding in both superstition and spirituality is just as important to the reader as is Henrietta’s. The author has the ability to show us so many things about life, science, treatment of Africa-Americans, medical research—and we can understand it all because she is so good at making it clear. The only part of the story that she doesn’t dig into is the life of Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks. I wondered a lot about him as Henrietta’s cancer was caused by repeated STDs that he gave her. After she died at age 31, he allowed a new woman in his life whose cruel abuse of the children permanently scarred them—destroying the life of at least one of the five kids. Yet David is given a pass on everything. Perhaps the author didn’t feel that his story was crucial to the arc of the overall family story, but it was the one missing piece that bothered me. Still, this is one of the best books of its kind. Any student interested in medicine, the history of the treatment of African-Americans by researchers, the rise of bioethics—or just a good story of a suffering family—will want to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.