Henrietta Lacks died in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital on October 4, 1951 of cervical cancer. However, unbeknownst to her or her family, tissue samples were taken from Henrietta’s tumor and the cells from that tumor survived and continued to multiple in cell culture (something no other cells had been found to do before). Those cells become known as HeLa (the first immortal cell line) and have helped bring about the polio vaccine, new information about cancers, and have even been sent into space. These cells are still being used in labs around the world. Her family however, didn’t learn about them until decades after Henrietta’s death, most of who have been without health insurance for periods of times throughout their lives. Rebecca Skloot first heard of HeLa and Henrietta in a college lecture hall at sixteen, and became fascinated with the person behind the cells, that the world knew so little about.
In her research to discover more about Henrietta The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks becomes more than just a story about Henrietta. It is about her children, and how the magnitude of HeLa cells has impacted their lives. It is about how the cells were acquired and what rights patients had in the 1950s and what rights they have today. Skloot, delves into the ethics regarding human tissues (“today most Americans have their tissue on file somewhere” (Skloot, 315)), scientific research, and commercial use. A fascinating look into scientific research and the human stories behind it.