Imagine this Halloween horror story: After a long excruciating illness, your mother dies of cancer. Decades later, you find out that some of her cells are still alive, and are being kept in laboratories around the world.
Amazingly, this story actually happened. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks documents this strange tale.
In 1951, a poor Southern tobacco farmer had a terminal case of cancer. Without asking, doctors took a sample of her cells. Astoundingly, the cells never died. Hospital researcher George Guy was ecstatic. He grew more and more cells, and soon, he was giving away cultures to laboratories around the world.
The cells became part of a million-dollar industry, and launched a medical revolution. With these cell cultures, scientists created the polio vaccine, unlocked the secrets of cancer, viruses and even studied the effects of the atom bomb.
For years, the identity of the donor, Henrietta Lacks, was kept secret. The cultures were only known by the initials taken from her name: HeLa. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the fascinating and long overdue story of the woman behind those cells.
Author Rebecca Skloot researched tirelessly and conducted interviews over several years to uncover this complicated story. It was a daunting challenge.
Because Henrietta’s identity was kept secret, even her own children didn’t know about the cell cultures. When they learned of their existence, more than 20 years after the first cells were grown, they were suspicious and afraid. Their mother had been wronged by a medical system that had a record of mistreating black patients.
They were outraged to know that literally tonnes of their mother’s cells were alive in the world. At the same time, they couldn’t help being proud of their mother’s contribution to science.
UCLA professor, Hannah Landecker, who grew up in Penticton, has also written an academic book about HeLa cells called Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. Skloot acknowledges her debt to Landecker, noting that her book was an excellent resource for the HeLa story. Landecker’s book is published by Harvard University Press.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a terrifying, poignant tale, and proves that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.