portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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Skloot Learns About HeLa Cells (Prologue): A struggling student, Rebecca Skloot learns about HeLa cells in a community college biology class. HeLa cells were the first human cells to reproduce successfully in a lab, making them an incalculable contribution to scientific research over the course of the twentieth century. Skloot grows curious when she learns that the history of the woman from whom HeLa cells come, Henrietta Lacks, is largely unknown. Though other researchers warn her about the eccentricities of the Lacks family, Skloot contacts Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter. Believing that her mother’s spirit lives on through her cells, Deborah agrees to work with Skloot to uncover the history of her mother and HeLa cells.

Henrietta Lacks is Diagnosed with Cervical Cancer (Chapters 1–7): Born in rural Virginia, Henrietta was raised in poverty among her extended family, who earned their living farming tobacco. She shares a room with her first cousin and eventual husband, Day, and has her first child, Lawrence, at fourteen. Their second child, Elsie, struggles with epilepsy and mental disabilities, and she lives with the Lacks family for as long as possible before being institutionalized. When World War II brings jobs to industrial areas, Day and Henrietta relocate to Baltimore, Maryland. Henrietta and Day ultimately have five children. After the fifth, Henrietta notices a “knot” in her womb, and Day takes her to the hospital. The doctors diagnose Henrietta with cervical cancer and extract cells for further study, using the first two letters of her first and last names—“HeLa”—to label them.

Henrietta’s Cancer Spreads Aggressively (Chapters 8–10): Despite initial success with radiation treatment, Henrietta’s cancer spreads rapidly throughout her internal organs. Her doctors subject her to racial segregation and the medical policies of “benevolent deception” that were common in the 1950s. They continue to treat Henrietta while extracting cell samples for research, all without informing her or obtaining her consent. Surprised by the rapid growth of her cancer cells, doctors attribute Henrietta’s malignancy to multiple strains of HPV. Members of Henrietta’s family say the cancer was “man made” or perhaps the product of “voodoo.”

HeLa Cells Revolutionize Science while the Lacks Family Suffers (Chapters 11–22): Henrietta dies on October 4, 1951. In the wake of her death, the Lacks family falls into disarray. Henrietta’s children are subjected to domestic and sexual abuse. Meanwhile, researchers discover that the HeLa cells reproduce indefinitely in cell cultures. This discovery revolutionizes medical research, leading to the development of vaccines, immunotherapy, and organ transplantation. Though standards of medical ethics shift throughout the 1950s and 1960s, no one informs the Lacks family of the contribution Henrietta’s cells make to science or of the profits they bring to private companies.

The Lacks Family Learns about HeLa Research (Chapters 23–32): In the early 1970s, medical researchers from Johns Hopkins reach out to the Lacks family with requests for cell samples of Henrietta’s children. Emotions run high—confusion, well-founded paranoia, and anger—as members of the Lacks family try to make sense of these requests and the research being done on HeLa cells. The scientific community takes advantage of the family’s lack of education and resources. Their privacy is repeatedly breached by medical professionals and journalists alike.

Deborah Finds Peace with Her Family Legacy (Chapters 33–38): Deborah and Skloot have a rocky relationship as they research Henrietta’s life. Deborah demands complete transparency, and Skloot works to be as honest as possible. However, Deborah reaches a breaking point when they visit The Hospital for the Negro Insane where her older sister Elsie died. Physically and emotionally distressed, Deborah takes Skloot to visit her cousin in her mother’s rural hometown. In a moment of religious exultation, Deborah’s cousin transfers the burden of Henrietta’s cells from Deborah to Skloot. Skloot comes to recognize the importance of understanding Henrietta’s life and impact from an emotional, religious perspective. Deborah finds peace in relinquishing control of both her mother’s medical records and the research into her mother’s life. Deborah gives these responsibilities to Skloot before passing away in 2009.

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