The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Hopkins say they gave them cells away. . . but they
made millions! It’s not fair! She’s the most important person in
the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?. . . Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask. . . . What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey never told the family anything we
didn’t know nothing about those cells
and he didn’t care.”

-Rebecca Skloot

hela-cells-galleycat

One woman’s cells are responsible for helping “with some of the most important
advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning. gene mapping, in vitro
fertilization.” These cells are called HeLa cells, named for the woman they came from,
Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta, a poor black woman, died of cervical cancer in 1951, but before she died, cancerous cells were taken from her body without her consent by her doctor at Johns Hopkins, who then gave them to a friend for research. Scientists at the time were looking for “immortal” human cells for years, but without success all cells died eventually in the culture no matter what researchers did to them. Henrietta’s cells were remarkable they were resilient, and multiplied at astonishing rates, making them perfect for use in research. They were, in fact, bought by scientists all over the world, and became central to research. Despite HeLa cells’ significance, no one really knew anything about the woman who unknowingly gave these cells to science, and her surviving family had no idea what Henrietta’s cells had done, or that they even still were alive! In fact, Henrietta’s family didn’t really know what a cell was at all. Rebecca Skloot, a science writer, had been curious about Henrietta since she was mentioned in her community college biology class.

No one knew much about the woman behind HeLa, the name given to Henrietta’s cells. In 1999, Skloot set out to find information about Henrietta her life, death, and family in hopes of writing a book on her. She tried to contact Henrietta’s descendants and was told to talk to Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter. Deborah was excited for her mother to get the recognition she deserved and to learn more about her, but she and the rest of the family weren’t ready to trust anyone. They thought that Hopkins should be sued and did not trust the scientific community, which had violated their rights. No one would take the time to explain their mother’s cells to them, and Deborah had many unanswered questions. Will Deborah and Henrietta’s other children learn to trust Skloot? What will be found about Henrietta  her
past, treatment, and death and how will Deborah take it? Will Henrietta Lacks receive the recognition she deserves?

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