When asked the inevitable “What have you been reading?” in medical school interviews, this book meant I could answer with genuine passion and interest.
After countless recommendations, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a book I had been meaning to read almost since it was first published, but somehow I had never quite got around to it. There was always something more pressing to be read i.e. something fictional. Let’s face it, after a day of being bombarded with information in lectures the last thing I want is to sit down to a book where I run the risk of actually learning something. Oh no, I’ll take fictional escapism any day. But this July, with the horror of exams fading to a distant memory, and two more months of summer holiday looming large ahead of me, I decided to take the plunge.
I needn’t have worried. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reads like the best of fiction.
It tells the story of an African-American woman who died in 1951, aged just 31, of an aggressive cervical cancer. It also tells the story of her legacy: the HeLa cell line, taken from Henrietta’s tumour while she was still alive, cultured in a lab, and discovered to be immortal. After her death HeLa was mass-produced and sold to laboratories all over the world. It has been used in a vast and varied array of scientific research including research into cancer, the human genome, and the development of the polio vaccine, and it continues to be used to this day.
However, it is not the scientific advances which HeLa helped bring about which made this book such an engrossing read for me, but the ethical issues that the book raises. Henrietta does not give consent for the mass-production and sale of her cells, and her family don’t see a penny of the profits from HeLa. In fact, they do not even learn of its existence until years after Henrietta’s death, and, once they do, are deeply disturbed by the idea that their mother’s cells are being experimented on. Given the focus on informed consent and communication in modern medicine, I found the complete lack of communication with Henrietta and her family shocking. Understandably it breeds in them a mistrust of health professionals and authority more generally. Skloot’s sensitive portrayal of Henrietta’s surviving children and their struggle to understand their mother’s “immortality” is interwoven with stories of other individuals whose tissues have been bought and sold, with or without their consent, to ask the compelling question: who owns our cells once they are no longer part of us?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book I wish I had read long ago, so that, when asked the inevitable “what have you been reading?” in medical school interviews I would have been able to answer with genuine passion and interest.