Book review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In an often-reproduced photograph, Henrietta Lacks stands in a matching skirt and jacket, her hands at her hips, her hair complexly coiffed, a smile brightening her face. An attractive, lively African-American woman.

“Henrietta had walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips,” writes Rebecca Skloot. “She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw thick hips, short, muscular legs, and hands rough from tobacco fields and kitchens. She kept her nails short so bread dough wouldn’t stick under then when she kneaded it, but she always painted them a deep red to match her toenails.

“Henrietta spent hours taking care of those nails, touching up chips and brushing on new coats of polish.”

That was Henrietta in her late twenties.

On October 4, 1951, just a month after turning 31, Henrietta died of a virulent cervical cancer that had spread throughout her body.

Mary Kubicek was a lab technician who assisted at the autopsy of Henrietta’s body.

“Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed,” writes Skloot. “She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs — anything to avoid looking into her lifeless eyes.

“Then Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped. Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. ‘When I saw those nails,’ Mary told me years later, ‘I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh, Jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman.’ ”

For six months, Kubicek had been working with cancer cells, labeled HeLa. These were the first human cells that scientists, after decades of trying, had been able to keep alive outside of the human body. Not just for days or weeks, but without end.

Reproducing rapidly and continuously, HeLa were the first “immortal” human cells grown in a laboratory. They were Henrietta’s cells.

The original cells had been removed by a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from the tumor in Henrietta’s cervix six months before her death — without her knowledge or consent.

The doctor did this just moments before beginning to treat Henrietta’s cancer by sewing a tube filled with radium inside her cervix. Initially, those treatments seemed to work, but, months later, the doctors discovered that the cancer had spread throughout her body.

Given the standard medical procedures of the time, it wasn’t surprising or noteworthy that Henrietta’s cells were sent to a lab for research. What was surprising was the resilience of those cells and their widespread — indeed, international — impact on medical research ever since.

As Skloot notes in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the cells have been “part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia and Parkinson’s disease, and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. …Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.”

Skloot is a science reporter who has been captivated by the story of Henrietta Lacks since high school. For more than a decade, she did extensive research into the woman behind the scientific phenomenon, and her 2010 book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was the result.

There are three levels of meaning to the world “Immortal” in Skloot’s title.

One is the “immortality” of HeLa, a story that she tells well and clearly, especially for science dummies like me.

The second is the immortality that HeLa has given to Henrietta. It’s a strange sort of immortality since Henrietta is most often simply mentioned in a sentence or a footnote, and frequently misidentified as Helen Lane or Helen Larson.

Skloot does important work in pulling together all the facts and laying them out in a way that gives Henrietta her due and should go far in the future toward making sure others give Henrietta her due as well.

Both of those are somewhat exotic forms of immortality — the sort of immortality that a famous phenomenon, such as Hurricane Katrina, or a famous person, such as Joan of Arc, has.

The third form of immortality that Skloot addresses in her book is one that is much more common. Indeed, it’s one that all of us will share in one way or another — the immortality of having touched the lives of family and friends and of being remembered.

So it is with Henrietta. Sixty years after her death, her children, family and friends have lived their lives and touched other lives. Many have died, and many children of children have been born.

Skloot’s greatest contribution is her telling of the story of Henrietta’s survivors.

It’s been a hard story for them to live as poor and poorly educated African-Americans. And it’s been made harder by HeLa’s international celebrity in the scientific community.

Unsophisticated and unlearned, Henrietta’s husband, children, cousins and friends have been buffeted by economic and social upheavals and left in the margins of education, employment and, ironically, medical treatment.

And left extremely confused when, decades late, they began hearing garbled accounts of the survival of Henrietta’s cells as HeLa and discovered that HeLa was an international science star.

They felt betrayed, gypped and taken advantage of, especially since they often had no money for health insurance or a visit to the doctor.

This is a messy part of Skloot’s story — a good messiness.

She makes it clear that the existence of HeLa didn’t directly hurt or cheat the Lacks family. But it’s also clear from her book that HeLa was yet another thing that threw members of the family off balance, that helped them feel marginalized by a society that had marginalized them in many other ways.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, a year old at the time of her mother’s death, spent much of her life trying to figure out who her mother was and what HeLa meant for her.

Just as Henrietta’s toenails helped bring her alive in a way for Mary Kubicek, so too does Skloot’s book help bring Henrietta alive for the reader.

And not only Henrietta.

Skloot brings home to the reader the lives, burdens and worries of Deborah and the rest of Henrietta’s survivors.

This is the most important part of her book. Through Skloot’s eyes and words, we see Deborah and the other survivors.

They are human beings like us. Like Henrietta of the red toenails.

Patrick T. Reardon

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