A site called NegusWhoRead, should have book reviews and recommendations. Periodically we will feature book suggestions from smart, well read and successful people.
I am a family physician, but that is not why I am recommending The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a book every smart Negus should read (Well it is likely part of the reason, but everyone should know the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family). As we embark upon Black History Month you will no doubt be inundated with short biographies and anecdotes about African Americans who made a difference. A very good argument can be made that Henrietta Lacks very existence impacted more lives than any Black person who ever lived past, present or future.
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the 9th child of Eliza Lacks. When her mother died giving birth to her 10th child, her father moved the family to Clover , Virginia and divided the children among various relatives. Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, who was raising another grandchild left behind by his daughter, David “Day” Lacks, who would become the father of her children and her husband.
Day followed the surge in the demand for steel following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to Sparrows Point Steel mill, by the mid 20th century the world’s largest steel mill. At the age of 21, when Day had the funds for a home, Henrietta followed Day to Turner Station, one of the largest and earliest African American communities in Baltimore County. In addition to the two children born in Virginia, Lawrence an Elsie, the Lacks had three children while in Baltimore David Jr., called Sonny, Deborah, and Joseph, who later changed his name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman.
In 1951, shortly after the birth of Joseph, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins because she felt a “knot” inside, at her cervix. Soon after, she was diagnosed with carcinoma of the cervix. During her radiation treatments two a sample of healthy tissue and one of her cancerous tissue was removed without her permission. The cells were given by her physician to Dr. George Otto Gey, who propagated her cells into the an immortal cell line.
The author, Rebecca Skloot, learned of the cell line in a community college biology class. After describing the wonders of cell division and the process of mitosis, the instructor turned to what happens when there is a mistake in that process. The Study of cells has shown that one small mistake in the process of cell replication can turn the normal growth of a cell to cancer — cells growing out of control.
“We learned that by studying cancer cells in culture,” Defler said. He grinned and spun to face the board, where he wrote two words in enormous print: HENRIETTA LACKS. Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. “Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions—if not billions—of Henrietta’s cells….Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, …Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse. “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said. Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.
And so begins the story of Henrietta, her cancer cells nd her family. Her cancer cells would be the bedrock for almost all cancer research since then. While It is the story of her “immortal”cell line, alive in culture since 1951, it is more importantly the story of the difficult life of Day, Lawrence, Joseph and specifically Deborah who survived her, unaware of the cell line or its use in research until a chance conversation between Deborah and the brother-in-law of a friend who happened to be working on Henrietta’s cells. They were not approached by the scientific community until 1973, to help clear up contamination of other cultures by the HeLa cells, which were so strong they took over most cultures they came in contact with. They needed genetic tests to differentiate HeLa from other cells and those genetic tests led them to the family. The family members were not highly educated and certainly not well versed in medical or scientific matters. Part of their mother was ALIVE? In a lab? Being experiment on? Her daughter Deborah had read about the Tuskegee experiments in the newspaper. Deborah got herself some basic textbooks and a dictionary and set out to try to understand what was written about the ongoing experiments.
The more Deborah struggled to understand her mother’s cells, the more HeLa research terrified her. When she saw a Newsweek article called PEOPLE-PLANTS that said scientists had crossed Henrietta Lacks’s cells with tobacco cells, Deborah thought they’d created a human-plant monster that was half her mother, half tobacco. When she found out scientists had been using HeLa cells to study viruses like AIDS and Ebola, Deborah imagined her mother eternally suffering the symptoms of each disease: bone-crushing pain, bleeding eyes, suffocation.
Her confusion and fear is palpable but her story is respectfully told.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating and heartbreaking a reminder that we are all at the mercy what some call fate, circumstance, and ultimately and finally our cells, powerful and ideally, precise.
Purchase The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks here