A True Immortal on Earth

Have you heard of HeLa cells?
Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks?

Way back in medical school, I'd learned was that HeLa cells were originally taken from the cervical cancer cells belonging to a young, black woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951. That they were the first human cell line that grew like crazy in cell culture, and were used to create the Polio vaccine which saved countless lives. In fact, so much research has been done on HeLa cells that chances are, every person has benefitted from Henrietta, in one way or another. I remember we all chuckled over the fact that over twenty tons of HeLa cells had been produced over the last several decades. Twenty tons of Henrietta!

But after the laughter died away, I was haunted by the idea that somehow, in some way, Henrietta was still alive. And that the story was a little too simply told.

What I didn't know then was this: that the cells were taken without Henrietta's consent. And that the family was kept in the dark while her cell line was sold and distributed throughout the world.

So while we writers and readers consider immortality, non-consensual scientific experimentation, and the oppression of the vulnerable in our sci-fi and fantasy books, it's important to note that these things aren't all fiction. They trace their imaginary roots in some very real history. 

This was one of the best books I've read this past year, mostly because it's not just a book of facts--it's a story. It's about Henrietta, her family, and the tumultuous relationship between the author and Henrietta's daughter, Deborah. And what's most important, it opens up an extremely difficult dialogue about ethics, race, and science.

For more information, check out the Lacks Family Website, Wikipedia on HeLa cells and Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot's website, and this recent CNN article that reminded me to write this post. :)


Natalie Aguirre said...

I just saw a news story about this last nice. It's great that her cells have helped so many people but sad it was done without hers or her family's permission. Thanks for sharing about it. You're right. It's not all made up fiction.

Maurice Mitchell said...

What an amazing story although am I the only one that thinks it's creepy to think about her flesh just growing forever?

Shelly said...

This book fascinated and disturbed me for a long time. I just wonder what Henrietta would say if she could comment on all of this.

mooderino said...

Pretty amazing story. Taking her cells without consent is a little dubious but a lot of good has come of it. Difficult one to condemn completely.


Sheena-kay Graham said...

I have heard about her story before. I think it's great all the the positive that came from her cell but awful it was done without her consent.

Karen Lange said...

I always thought it was sad that this was done without her consent. As much as I am for finding cures and all, I hate the idea that people are misled in any way.

Catherine Stine said...

Wow. A friend of mine just wrote a book on human experimentation and I wonder if this story was included in it.