By Rebecca Skloot
Some books contain knowledge, others thrills. Skloot has managed to fill her book with both. The story of Henrietta Lacks was on the edge of history until Skloot took up the challenge of dragging it back to the centre. Lacks would have been all but forgotten had it not been for the investigative skills of this impressive young journalist. And yet the great impact Lacks has made on modern science continues to reverberate today. How could she have been forgotten? Well, lots of reasons (as Skloot outlines), but perhaps the most sensible explanation is that she herself did not do anything directly. It was cells from her cervix that enabled the acceleration of research 10 times faster than would have been possible without her.
Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 but, just before her death, her doctor took a sample of the tumour multiplying inside her. When scientists at her hospital noticed these cells’ incredible ability to divide perpetually – that is, without dying after around 50 divisions as normal cells would – they began to share them around. Lacks’ cancerous cells, known as HeLa cells in order to anonymise their source, became the cornerstone of medical research. Their immortality meant that they were perfect for testing new drugs and therapies, for understanding various cellular functions and for investigating the causes of cancer and other conditions. Having died in 1951, Lacks knew none of this. And neither did her family, until decades later when they found out that HeLa was a multibillion-dollar global business.
Although other journalists have tried to tackle this story, none have thrown half as much at it as did Skloot. Skloot has made the story of HeLa personal again, and she does this using several shrewd techniques. Foremost among them is the way she weaves together the narratives of Henrietta, her descendents and the writer herself. Skloot inserts herself into the story, as the researcher and reporter who befriends the extremely wary Lacks family. This excellent book could not have been written without the patience and understanding of both Skloot and the Lackses. And Skloot does not conceal that in any way. Her tentative, awkward conversations with Henrietta’s descendents are just as dramatic and exciting as the achievements of HeLa cells themselves. As a talented writer, Skloot also captures the way her various characters talk – not to make it personal for the sake of it, but because it is important that these people are represented after having been denied that for so long.
The other thing that Skloot does very cleverly is to contextualise the treatment of Henrietta at the hands of medical professionals both during her condition and after her death. She writes about the mistreatment of black patients in the Fifties, the abuse suffered by people with mental illness around the same time and, moreover, the startling way that scientists around the world traded and tested HeLa cells without apparently wondering who they came from.
The thrills in this book are legion: the investigative reporter’s trail, the shock of revelations to do with Henrietta’s treatment, the rollercoaster of friendship between Skloot and Henrietta’s family, and the unravelling science beneath it all. An outstanding contribution to popular science and modern history.