The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot


This compelling book illustrates the intrigues and mysteries which underlie scientific progress and propel the course of medical history. It reveals how lofty scientific goals combined with blind scientific ambition to thrust one woman into the centre of almost every field of medicine. Reminiscent of Alex Haley’s Roots, it is a heartbreaking family tragedy infused with uplifting and colourful characters, weaved into an adventurous journalistic pursuit of the truth. And at the center are enigmatic cancer cells which have been growing with ‘mythological intensity‘ since 1951. The cells, obtained when a poor black woman had a cervical biopsy at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital, have been ‘doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions’ (pages 47-48). The author brilliantly depicts this ferocious and limitless growth and the boundless contribution the cells have made to medical progress, and in the process she successfully makes the case for the everlasting gratitude humanity owes Henrietta Lacks.

By Manu5, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The secret of HeLa cells lies in their spectacular aggressiveness, and the author masterfully uncovers the reasons for this unique attribute (pages 242-248). The rampant growth of HeLa cells enables them to contaminate other cell cultures such that ‘if just one HeLa cell landed in a culture dish, it took over’. The cells could inexplicably ‘float through the air on dust particles’, ‘travel from one culture to the next’ or ‘ride from lab to lab’  (page 176). In this way the cells successfully contaminated cultures all over the world (page 200). The mysterious fecundity of the cells was aptly captured by Henrietta’s cousin when he said ‘nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin‘ (page 94). Because of their unique characteristics, HeLa cells were ‘bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world’ (pages 1-2).

By Manuel Almagro RivasOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The real significance of HeLa cells lies in their singular and ubiquitous beneficence to medical science. Describing HeLa cells as hardy and inexpensive workhorses, the author demonstrated their immense contributions to diverse fields such as the development of chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, and in-vitro fertilization. She illustrated how the cells promoted the development of drugs for the treatment of herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease, and she particularly emphasised the impact of HeLa cells in the development of the polio vaccine (pages 2 and 111-113). HeLa cells also enabled scientists to successfully carry out experiments to learn about the cellular effect of hazardous exposure to ‘endless toxins, radiation, and infections‘ (page 67). 

Von Fraunhofer-Institut für Biomedizinische Technik, St. Ingbert, Paul Anastasiadis, Eike Weiß – Fraunhofer-Institut für Biomedizinische Technik, St. Ingbert, Paul Anastasiadis, Eike Weiß, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Henrietta Lack’s medical history is infused with scientific intrigue and distorted by popular myths, and it required the author’s persistent journalistic drive to unravel the lies and deceptions that had obscured the truth. The medical saga includes, for example, the driving ambition of gynaecologists Howard Jones and Wesley TeLinde to prove their theory of cervical cancer, and the determination of biologists George and Margaret Gey to grow immortal cells in culture. The story was replete with historical landmarks such as the development of cervical cancer screening by George Papanicolau, and the development of the HPV vaccine by Herald zur Hausen (pages 33 and 243-247). The book explored many scientific epochs such as cell culture techniques, chromosome studies, and the Hayflick limit, and it made several painful references to ‘illegal, immoral, and deplorable‘ practices such as the unethical injection of HeLa cells into unwary subjects by Chester Southam (pages 114-116 and chapter 17).

By kaibara87 – originally posted to Flickr as Cell Culture, CC BY 2.0, Link

The author’s key contributions to scientific debate are her extensive reviews of the legal, ethical, and commercial dimensions of the use of human tissues in medicine. She illustrated her arguments with landmark legal cases such as the one that absolved cancer researcher David Golde of guilt in his un-consented use of John Moore’s hairy cell leukaemia cells to develop, patent, and market proteins used in the treatment of cancer and infections (pages 229-230). The author observed that ‘when tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes… you abandon them as waste, and anyone can take your garbage and sell it’ (page 234). The author explored this tricky intersection of the ethics and the commerce of medical research when she said ‘the question isn’t whether human tissues and tissue research will be commercialised… the question is how to deal with this commercialisation’ (page 369). She also explored related concepts such as ‘benevolent deception‘ and informed consent (pages 73 and 152).

By Eric Ward – originally posted to Flickr as Family PortraitOriginal uploader for wikimedia was AQ at de.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

A key theme throughout the book is the influence of the HeLa saga on Henrietta Lack’s wider family. The author brilliantly contrasted the gentle nature of Henrietta Lacks to the the cruel way she was treated, just as she compared the poverty endured by her family to the abundance reaped by scientists and society from HeLA cells. The book details the prevailing unethical research practices which enabled this situation to arise, and it highlighted the compelling correlation with previous medical scandals such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the Mississippi appendectomy study (page 58). The author’s storytelling was a masterclass, weaving suspense and mystery with detective work. Her tenacity in pursuing the truth of the story was as remarkable as her tender portrayal of the family members; she deftly painted their down-to-earth simplicity and non-judgmentally portrayed their supernatural beliefs about Henrietta Lacks who they said ‘had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being’ (page 339).

Scales of Justice. vaXzine on Flickr.


This masterly telling of the unique HeLa cells is breathtaking. The author has related a great human story whilst addressing important scientific, ethical, and racial topics. The book details the drive and attention to detail by the scientists whose ambition is matched only by their intrigue and competitiveness. The book reviews key medical and moral issues and makes detailed recommendations on the subject of research and commerce in human tissues.

Overall assessment

This is a well-researched and well-written book. It is an informative historical telling of one woman’s critical, even if unintentional, contribution to human progress. It is also a gripping saga of an interesting family. The author skilfully traces the legal and ethical dimensions relevant to cell cultures and to the whole practice of medicine. I unreservedly recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Macmillan, London, 2010
Number of Chapters: 38
Number of Pages: 431
ISBN: 978-0-330-53344-7
Star rating: 5
Price: £8.90

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