Throughout The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot interacts with people in the scientific and medical professions and with descendants of Henrietta Lacks—two groups that prove to be mutually exclusive in their membership. Skloot includes discussion of the varied applications of what came to be known as the HeLa cells that were obtained from those taken from Lacks’s body.
The author acknowledges that numerous medical and scientific successes came about from the multiple uses of those cells. However, she complicates the idea of “success” in those experiments and applications by focusing on the ethical shortcomings of the medical treatment and later research processes. Ironically, however, one of the successes that she explores is the subsequent changes to laws regarding medical and scientific ethics, especially in regard to informed consent.
The other main dimension of failure and success that Skloot explores is the individual legacy of Henrietta Lacks as a parent and ancestor of many other family members. She delves into their personal and professional lives and addresses ways that race and class influenced their trajectories. While not shying away from addressing personal challenges and family issues, Skloot contextualizes possible failures within the social context of their lives. She also addresses the influence of the research findings on family members’ attitudes toward success, including the ways they wanted Henrietta’s contributions to be publicly acknowledged long after their initial impact began.