Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Do you know who Henrietta Lacks is?  Have you ever heard anything about her? Neither have I until two weeks ago when this was one of the suggested readings for our summer Book Reading.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot was on the New York Times Bestseller list but I still really had no idea who she was.  There was a faded picture of a young woman in Black and White smiling and looking at the camera with confidence and ease.  I am always one to expan my horizons so I quickly decided on this book for our summer reading club.

Once I was done my book I picked up this one as it was part of the summer reading challenge.  Because I don’t seem to have enough today I thought there was a possibility I would have time to add on more.  At first when I saw the book had 614 pages I thought maybe I had pick up a copy of War and Peace ( I do intend getting there one day but I think I need to warm up to reading material of that magnitude).  It wasn’t until I realized I had picked up the large print edition that I realized my mistake.  Maybe it was a good idea as I began my journey into getting to know Henrietta Lacks.

Loretta Pleasant was born August 1, 1920 in Roanoke Virginia.  She was born into slavery at a time when it was at his peak.. It is hard to imagine a time when people were kept to do the bidding of others and lived in what I deemed to be unsavoury conditions.  To imagine a time where even the basic rigths was something of priviledge and the rest where left to suffer and try to thrive in a an environment that would defy all odds.  When you become the property of another you are restricted to live a life that has been dictacted to you and it becomes your lifeline in order to survive.  To do anything else but to obey would seem like idiocy.  In fact it is for all these reasons that it would seem that her life would be one of struggle where at the end of her life she would disappear into dust.  When she was only four her mother had passed away during childbirth. Dividing up the 10 surviving children amongst relatives.  Henrietta was shipped off to live with her grandfather.  It was their she lived with her cousing, Day, who was 9 and it was then in 1924 that it would seem that her destiny was predetermined.  Her and Day tended to the farm and garden before they would head of to the tobacco fields to meet up with their cousins and the other children of Clover.  It was said that Henrietta was the prettiest girl around.  She had a beautiful smile and her walnut eyes captivated the attention of many.   Her one cousin Crazy Joe had stripped off his clothes and jumped into frozen lake when she said no to going on a date.

When Henrietta became pregnant at 14 nobody was surprised that it was Day’s.  They had been sharing a bed since they were 4 so it was a natural progression that the cousins would be married.  Four years later they welcomed another daughter and all seemed well.  Both children were born on the same floor as the ancestors before them.  Together they worked very hard to provide for their family and a few more children would follow.

In the early 1950’s Henrietta would complain about a hard lump in her uterus but would never get treatment or advice on it.  You can’t be fearful of a woman growing up colored in that era.  The way we treated each other back then is just short of horrifying.  Actually it surpasses any nightmare you could imagine because this is how real people were treated.  Being a young colored woman in the 1950s with next to little income you can’t blame her for delaying treatment or a diagnosis until it was too late.  In fact was there even successful treatment back then? She would have had no idea as she had only a 6th grade education as she needed to help provide for her family.  All she knew was she was in pain and she didn’t want to stop having babies.

Imagine this…she was able to have not one but two babies after she had the tumour growing inside her.  Both babies survived. Her youngest believes that the ugliness of the cancer growing inside of her is the reason for his rage.  It is so interesting to see how the modern medicine of the time failed her considerably.  It was only in this failure that there was the biggest success in medical history when it came to dealing with cancer cells.  When diagnosing ailments and illnesses you of course would have to take a biopsy.  We do these now in order to determine the type and severity of the disease we are hoping to treat.  Being a young colored, uneducated women who just had a seat in the “colored” wing of the hospital probably wouldn’t question to much when the Dr requests a sample.  You would take what they are saying as gospel and sign away the right to obtain your cells.

As Henrietta struggled with her battle.  The Hopkins Hospital began to plan with her cancer cells.  It was while looking at her cells they noticed that they were unlike anything they had ever seen before.  They were stronger, healther and had this will to mutlipy and survive in a way that if allowed could over take the whole lab.  They began to treat Henrietta by sewing radium into her uterus.  Her family had said that she had suffered from radiation burns because of the element in her body.  As they began to kill the last remaining living cells in her body.  Her cells outside of her body became immortal.  It was with the aide of her cells that changed the way scientists could study cells.  Without even knowing it she single handedly changed the world and directly impacted our lives 28 years before I was even born.  She helped find cures for STDs, Turberculosis, she enhanced the way scientists studied the cause and effects on different drugs, medications and ointments.  She always told those that would listen that she could feel the cancer growing inside her.  She felt the blackness take over her and she knew her time was coming.  When she was finally admitted into the hospital and diagnosed terminal she instructed her cousins to watch over her babies.  Little did she know that her lifes purpose was to save thousands if not millions and her cells still live on today.

Her children were destined to live in fear as they grew ignorant to the demise of their mom but also because of Ethel.  Imagine not only losing your mother but the woman who appears in her place abuses you and tortures your for years.  I could not imagine the feelings these children went through as they struggled to find a purpose for their life.  They were forgotten about in a society that should have treated them like gold.  They had nothing, knew nothing and really had zero expectations.  What they knew was that there mother went into Hopkins and died at a time when colored people were going missing on a regular basis.  It was common medical practice to study and test drugs on them as back in the early 1900s they really had no value.  They grew up scared thinking that they could be picked up off the streets at any time.

Even in death they wanted to harvest more and more cells.  But imagine this now…When somebody is alive you can do whatever you want with their cells.  You can take as many biopsies and pieces as you want.  The minute they die you have to follow very particular protocol.  Because her cells were something that they had never seen before they wanted to harvest as much as her as they could in order to study the affects of cancer on her cells.  They had to obtain permission from her husband.  Being uneducated himself it was hard to wrap his head around why they would need to do something like that.  He was horrified to think of what that would mean and even look like.  He did however give consent but her head and chest had to be left in tact.  After that he never heard of her cells again.

Scientists always abbreviated the name of the cultures to the name of the donor.  The cluster of cells will forever be named HeLa and would hide Henrietta’s identity for almost a half century.  I think it is human nature that took over.  There is always a desire to know more.  And of course it was always a matter of time before the world wanted to know who the woman was who changed everything for the whole of mankind.  Even after mankind turned its back on her her legacy lives on.  Her family was horrified when the media took hold on the idea of who HeLa was.  They had people from all over just wanting to make a buck off of them.  Nobody cared that this was their mother, their wife, their friend.  She was a person to them that they loved.  Not this culture of cells that the scientific world has come to know.  She lays in an unmarked grave somewhere close to where her mother rests.  To think that her short life came to stop almost 70 years and I am just now learning about her life.  To see how the world needed her in order to advance they forgot how to be thankful for the gift that they were given.  The rate of her cancer was none that they have ever seen.  Her autopsy report said that when she was opened it looked like her insides were filled with pearls.  Even her tumour was this dark jello like consistency that cut like butter when they took a sample.  It would appear that this would be her destiny.  The cancer she had and the way that she died changed modern medicine in so many ways.  It changed the way we handled cells both in life and in death.  This was her purpose.  She gave birth to 4 beautiful babies who ironically spent their whole lives with no medicare even though there mother made them millions.  They had no idea how much their mom means to the world and how she changed it.  I had no idea how a young mother of 4 lost her life.  Henrietta died at 12:15 AM on October 4, 1951. Born to Johnny and Eliza Pleasant she grew up in Clover right behind the train station.  Her bloodline says she was of African American descent whose ancestors were slaves.  Her cells don’t know race as they are being used to treat people of all color.  At times it seems she takes out her fury as she did overseas when she contaminated a whole lab. It seems for the most part she still wishes for humanity to find peace.  And as for her children they will never see any part of the millions that her cells had made for science.  They are just coming to terms with finding out all that they can about their mother.  In the beginning when it was all beginning to unfold they were consummed with anger for being treated like they were too ignorant to understand.  Maybe back then they were just too scared that if given the opportunity the family would say no and everything they would be working for would be shot down.  There is no turning back the clock now.  The Lacks family is more than happy in having the world be informed that it was their mother that sacrificed everything.  She truly did sacrifice everything for the greater good of mankind.

man s hand in shallow focus and grayscale photography
Photo by lalesh aldarwish on

One Comment Add yours

  1. Om Prakash Khare says:



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