The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her enslaved ancestors, whose cells – which were taken without her knowledge -became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture are still alive today, though she has been dead for 60 years. If you could pile all HeLa (as the scientists called Henrietta) cells onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons – as much as 100 Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine, uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold for millions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. Rebecca Skloot shows how the story of the Lacks family – past and present – is connected to the history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.