Last year in The Help, Kathryn Stockett told a fictional story of a young white woman interviewing black maids who had stories to tell about their white employers in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. This year in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells her own true story of interviewing the family of a black woman who died of cancer in 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, whose cells have been used ever since in medical research. While the stories may not sound similar on the surface, there are many common elements and as much to discuss. While Skloot's investigative report will probably not approach the market success of Stockett's novel, it is in my estimate as significant a book. Racial discrimination is only one of the concerns in this new book that should make every reader who has ever had medical treatment wonder about his or her own genetic destiny and privacy.
When Henrietta Lacks was treated for cancer in 1950 and 1951, the physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was originally established to treat Baltimore's poor of any race, took samples of her cancer cells. One of the physician was trying to cultivate cells that could live in petri dishes and be used in medical testing. Lacks' cancer cell proved to thrive in the lab, and he gave samples to colleagues all over the world. These cells labeled "HeLa" are still multiplying and are now sold commercially. Ironically, Lacks was never asked whether the cells could be used and no one in her family knew for twenty years of their fame. They have never gotten any financial benefits from what might be argued to be their cells. They have often avoided medical treatment that they could not afford.
Skloot does not just report the science and business of medical research. By recounting the life of the nearly forgotten Lacks and visiting her family, the author has made the story very accessible to anyone not inclined to technical reading. Skloot reconstructs many conversations, using many quotations. The anger, confusion, suffering, and relief of sons and daughters and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks are as much a part of the story as what diseases have been cured.
Don't skip reading the afterward. According to what Skloot has found, almost all of our cells are now being stored somewhere. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks isn't just a story about someone else and the issues it raises are not going away. It is an obvious choice for book clubs who tackle current events issues.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, 2010. ISBN 9781400052172.