The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.
I didn't realize how little I knew about medical research, patient privacy, and how race affected the development of both until I opened this book. Part personal memoir, part biography, part oral history, part scientific discovery, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks opened my eyes to so much.
From the beginning, Henrietta's short life is woven with sadness. Her husband David, who was also her cousin, was a habitual cheater and infected her with several STDs. When she contracted cervical cancer, she knew something was wrong but doctors didn't catch it in time to save her. She underwent horrific, primitive treatments without realizing that they would render her unable to bear more children. She died in Johns Hopkins, unaware that a small sample of her cancerous cervix lived on. Over the years, research using her cell line exploded, but no one informed her family for a long while. Through gathering material for her book on Henrietta's story, she also documented her interactions with the Lacks family, particularly her youngest daughter, Deborah.
This story is heartbreaking, horrifying, miraculous, and breathtaking. It will make you give thanks for the long, repetitive forms you have to sign every time you go to a new doctor's office. It will give you an awed respect for cellular research. It will make you fall in love with Henrietta Lacks.