After an offhand comment during a college biology class about the woman whose cells became the foundation for many of the medical advances of the 20th century, science journalist Rebecca Skloot became interested in learning more about the mysterious Henrietta Lacks. This would lead her on a whirlwind tour of twentieth-century medicine as well as the intimate experiences of one African-American family.
Henrietta Lacks was born to a poor Black family on August 1, 1920. She grew up in Virginia, where most of her family were tobacco farmers. She later moved to Baltimore with her husband and had five children: Elsie, Lawrence, Sonny, Deborah, and Joe.
She developed cervical cancer around the age of 30 and was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Without her consent or that of her family, doctors removed a small sample of flesh. George Gey, a scientist, was able to use this to create the first immortal cell line. Because scientist had a very difficult time keeping human cells alive in culture, this breakthrough enabled scientists to test the effects of chemicals and new technologies on cells without harming human beings. The cell line, known as HeLa (the first two syllables of Henrietta's first and last name) went on to revolutionize science.
However, Henrietta's family were never informed of their mother's contributions to science, nor did they receive any financial compensation. Instead, they struggled with her untimely death, as well as the structural factors of racism and poverty. They also endured the attempts of doctors who wanted to draw their blood to study Henrietta's genome, writers and reporters who wanted to make a buck publishing their story, and con artists who wanted to use them to exploit the medical system. The Lacks family only found out about the significance of HeLA through reading articles that other people had written, some of them with intimate details about Henrietta's death.
Throughout these struggles, the Lacks family members often did not have access to medical care, despite the fact that their mother's cells revolutionized the field.
After teaming up with Henrietta's daughter, writer Rebecca Skloot attempts to uncover the truth about who Henrietta Lacks was. Skloot also gives an important voice to the Lacks family, and highlights ongoing issues in medical ethics around patient consent and the ownership of biological materials.