In 1951 when Henrietta Lacks was dying of cancer in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins, cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge "became the first immortal human cells grown in a laboratory"(4).  Known as HeLa cells, they are still reproducing today and are used world wide in research for cancer, cloning, genetics, Parkinsons, and many technologies. Henrietta's family did not know she was the source of these immortal cells until scientists began testing the family members too.  Poor and black, they were very angry to find the white establishment had made fortunes using HeLa cells while the family got nothing for it and couldn't even get good health care. In her thorough and careful investigation, Rebecca Skloot interviewed the Lacks family; scientists, doctors, and others who worked with HeLa cells; historians; journalists; ethicists. This book traces the complex stages of her search for the truth about what happened to Henrietta Lacks, her HeLa cells, and her family.


Rebecca Skloot spent years investigating this story.  Part is history about Henrietta and her background.  Much of the work, though, focuses on her children, particularly her daughter Deborah, who struggles to understand who her mother was, what happened to her mother's cells, why she and her family were used without their consent, why they were so poor if the HeLa cells were so valuable. And another part is the story of HeLa cell research in science and medicine.

One of the excruciating ironies is that Jonas Salk tested the efficacy of his polio vaccine at Tuskegee, using mass produced HeLa cells.  As Skloot writes, "Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. . .on the same campus--and at the very same time--that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies"(97). Additional bioethical questions include who has the right to take, use, and control human tissue.

Those who know the play "W;t" will find Skloot's book a fitting companion. The researchers are fascinated by cancer's "immortality in culture" and almost indifferent to the real people dying in front of them. All the biomedical principles get compromised in the Henrietta Lacks story. It's true that many lives have been saved because HeLa cells were so useful to research.  It's true that standards for treatment of research subjects have changed since doctors took Lacks's cells. Still the Nuremberg Trials had already established by the time Lacks died that no one should be used for research without her consent.


This book won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.


Random House (Crown)

Place Published

New York



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