Black History Book Tuesday: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Six years ago, I read and reviewed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. HBO will premiere a movie based on the events in the book on Saturday, April 22 at 8pm. I would strongly advise everyone to see the film if they have not read the book. The story is as important as it is haunting.

The cells of Henrietta Lacks have been used in many medical breakthroughs including the development of the polio vaccine, drugs to treat herpes, leukemia, influenza, Parkinson’s disease, in-vitro fertilization and gene mapping. Despite this fact, most people do not know the story of the woman behind the cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the reader on a journey of three women, Henrietta Lacks, her daughter Deborah and the author Rebecca Skloot as the author tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family and their brush with history.

The book opens with the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who has discovered that something is not right with her cervical area. This would later be found to be a particularly virulent strain of cervical cancer that would cause her death, which is only the beginning of the story. The story provides insight into so many aspects of life at the time: segregation, poor medical treatment for blacks by the “best” hospitals in the country, and the unspeakable conditions for those blacks who were diagnosed with any aspect of mental illness or disorders.

Deborah emerges as the force from Henrietta Lack’s family who is strong enough to seek the truth about her mother and her sister, who died in a mental institution. She is fragile, though, undoubtedly in great part due to childhood abuse, domestic abuse and other hardships she has faced in life. One thing about her that I remember is that she was determined to understand the history of the situation without bitterness, which I found remarkable given what her family had been through.

Rebecca Skloot does an awesome job explaining the scientific significance of the events surrounding the cell harvesting and its aftermath. She documents the attitudes of the researchers and assistants involved and even includes research on the Lacks’ white relatives and the contrasts between their lives. I admire her tenacity and sensitivity where getting in touch with and speaking to the family was involved.

She has even created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefitting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.  Among the first grants were tuition and book expenses paid to five of Henrietta’s descendants and health care and emergency needs for several members of her immediate family.

If you haven’t read the book, read it. You will not be able to put it down.

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