“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot – how your body parts can live on after your death

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a book about cells – one of the smallest of body parts but one of the most important.

Henrietta was a black woman living in Virginia in the early part of the twentieth century. She had an impoverished life and lived in poverty. When she became ill she was treated at the local hospital as a free patient and in 1951 she died of a particularly virulent strain of cancer. The hospital, however, had samples of her cells which have now become the basic cells that pharmaceutical companies use for research into cancer and to test the effectiveness of their drugs. At no point did Henrietta or her family give consent to this and they have not benefitted in any way from monies made by the drugs companies from products developed using her cells.

The author centres Henrietta and her family in this book and tells the story of their life and also what the family have done to try and claim some share of profits made using Henrietta’s cells. This obviously makes the story quite sad because Henrietta’s life was one of poverty and desperation and her family live now in similar circumstances. It is also unclear from this book whether the publication of her story and the film that I understand has also been made have helped the family in any way.

This is, however, a fascinating story. My knowledge of biology is less than limited but I found the details easy enough to understand. The author talks about lack of access to good medical care for poor, black women and the legacy of institutional racism on the health of the black community. She also discusses the question of who owns your body and its products and gives other examples where the medical and pharmaceutical communities have profited at the possible expense of individuals. I had absolutely no idea that this problem existed and the discussion of the ethics of this was fascinating.

This book was originally recommended to me on a podcast and I obtained it because I like a good memoir/autobiography. I am glad I did. If you enjoy reading this book I would recommend Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker about a large family with a history of schizophrenia who have also had an impact on medical science.