This is the second of two posts, completing my review of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The first post appeared on this blog on February 27.
In pursuit of eye-catching headlines, science journalists, and especially medical journalists, frequently overdramatize each new drug or treatment, each successful basic science experiment, as a historic "breakthrough." Few really are, and it is especially hard to assess the impact of laboratory work at the time that it happens. But it didn't take long for George Gey and the members of his lab to recognize that Henrietta Lacks' cervical cancer cells were something special. He was soon shipping HeLa cells to researchers all over the world, including Jonas Salk, who used vast quantities of HeLa cells in a field trial of polio vaccine in 2 million U.S. children. On a less heroic note, HeLa cells also found their way to Chester Southam, a virologist who injected them into hundreds of prison inmates and surgical patients (without getting informed consent) to study how the immune system fought off cancer.
In the meantime, Henrietta's surviving family members were struggling just to scrape by. Her daughter, Deborah, who is the second heroine of this book, became pregnant at 16 and contended with an abusive and drug-addicted husband. Henrietta's youngest son, Joe, was abused as a child and later went to prison for second-degree murder. Not until the mid-1970s, more than two decades after their mother's death, did they begin to learn about their mother's immortal cells' contributions to science. Stunned and confused by the news, and angered by the inaccurate but persistent portrayal of Henrietta's tumor sample as a "donation," the Lacks family eventually stopped talking to reporters - that is, until Rebecca Skloot came along in the late 1990s.
I asked Rebecca what had driven her to keep pursuing this story when it was clear that the Lacks family initially had no interest in speaking to her (on several occasions, she was stood up or hung up on by various family members). She said part came from just being hard-headed, but the deeper she dug, the more fascinating the story became, and the more determined she became that it would eventually be told. Skloot had no idea that the book would sell even modestly well, much less become a bestseller (which it now is, ranking #3 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list as of this writing).
Although the narrative of the science accomplished thanks to HeLa cells could have carried the book all by itself, the story of the Lacks family and Skloot's stubborn quest to help them understand and come to terms with Henrietta's contribution to that science are what make it truly exceptional. So go out and buy the book, and also know that charitable donations can be made to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by Skloot to pay for health care and education expenses of Henrietta's descendants.