The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Nov 10, 2014

It was early 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland when Henrietta Lacks sought treatment at Johns Hopkins, a segregated hospital and the only one around that treated black patients. She said she had a painful “knot on my womb.” The diagnosis was cervical cancer. Before administering radium for the first time, the attending doctor cut two dime-sized samples of tissue, one cancerous and one healthy from Lacks' cervix. This was not part of the treatment. No one asked permission from Henrietta or her family. No one informed her or her family that this procedure was even performed.

The doctor gave those samples to George Gey, a scientist who had been trying to establish a continuously reproducing, human cell line for use in cancer research. According to protocol, a lab assistant scribbled an abbreviation of Lacks’ name, “HeLa,” on the sample tubes.

HeLa succeeded where all other human samples had failed. Scientists around the world had been trying to cultivate human cells for years, but the cultures all eventually died out except for Henrietta's extraordinarily malignant and aggressive cervical cancer cells. Gey gave away laboratory-grown HeLa cells to interested colleagues.

Scientists grew cells in mass quantities to test the new polio vaccine. Soon a commercial enterprise was growing batches for large-scale use. Discoveries piled up. HeLa led to the understanding that normal human cells have 46 chromosomes. NASA launched HeLa cells into orbit to test how human cells grow in micro-gravity. HeLa is the world's most widely used cancer cell line, existing and reproducing in virtually every biological research lab in the world.

Henrietta’s Life

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a biography of this virtually unknown mother of three who unwittingly left her cells to science. The author, Rebecca Skloot, with her curiosity peeked in a high school biology class, went on a mission to find out who this Henrietta Lacks was.

Born in 1920 in a small shack in Roanoke, Virginia, Henrietta grew-up working on the same tobacco fields that her father's ancestors worked as slaves. She and her husband moved to Baltimore, Maryland during the boom brought on by WWII. Many black workers moved north, leaving the Jim Crow South behind to find work in what is known as the Great Migration. Her husband came to work for Bethlehem Steel mill on Sparrows Point like many thousands of workers did.

Sparrows Point quickly became the largest steel plant in the world, employing more than 50,000 workers at its peak. Streams of white workers poured into Dundalk, while black workers including the Lacks family moved to Turner Station located at the southern end of Dundalk.

Henrietta died in October of 1951 at the age of 31. The cancer spread and ravaged her body.

The Abuse and Deception by Medicine

Although Hopkins never licensed or sold the HeLa cells, nor profited from their sale, entire companies and industries owe their foundation and fortunes to HeLa cells.

The Lacks family has never received a dime of compensation, nor, for a long time, any acknowledgment. The Lacks children were used for research purposes without their clear understanding of why Henrietta and her family were of such compelling scientific interest. Individuals at Hopkins committed egregious acts, such as giving confidential medical records to newspaper and magazine reporters.

The family was tormented by the thought that Henrietta was still alive in laboratories around the world, and being experimented on. If she was so important to medicine and the basis for huge fortunes, why does the family still live in poverty and without health insurance?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also a history of black people and Baltimore, and a history of racism in medicine. In this book we get a window into a family, a community and a time period that we otherwise would not have.