Last year I read a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which tells the story of a woman who died around age 30 from cancer, but whose cancerous cells were also taken from her body by scientists at Johns Hopkins Medical Center without her and her family’s knowledge. The lack of consent was completely legal during the 1950s, and Henrietta’s cells (which were the first human cells to grow and reproduce at a rapid rate outside the body) have helped to develop cures and vaccines without which many would be suffering today. However, Henrietta’s family never benefited from or was even aware of her strange contribution to cell research—an issue the book discusses as it alternates between Henrietta’s story and the scientific breakthroughs her cells made possible.
I enjoyed this book immensely as it weaved together the stories of a young Henrietta, her family’s trials throughout the past sixty years, and the developments arising out of experiments made possible by her cells (such as the polio vaccine and chemotherapy). One of the author’s greatest undertakings in writing this story was to help Henrietta’s family fully understand what had happened with the cells over the years. Many in the family developed a sense of peace as they came to view Henrietta’s cells as a sign of her unwillingness to die (or immortality). A sort of comfort eventually arose out of feelings of anger and resentment toward those who had withheld knowledge from the family.
Rebecca Skloot became very close with the family as she worked on this book and made a promise to start a foundation for Henrietta’s family and for education more generally.
Feeling as connected as I did to the story from Skloot’s wonderful writing I was glad to come across an article in this week’s New York Times book section about the foundation’s efforts. The article doesn’t mention book profits playing a large part in the foundation’s account, but speaks more about the donations that have been made since the book’s publication. Donations for local Baltimore scholarships and community-related grants can also be credited to the knowledge made public by the book. In effect, Henrietta’s descendants and their community at large have both benefited from Skloot’s extensive research and dedication to her project.
In all of this I am most drawn to the idea of what a book can do. Tell a story, link one story to hundreds of others, educate us about important scientific as well as ethical issues, save a family, help several children go to college, challenge the way we think about health and research, create awareness in the public mind of an issue formerly reserved for scientists, and many more. I’m happy to realize that such things can come from words, words that are written down to creatively record our history.