The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Henrietta Lacks is everywhere. And not just because the nation’s critics have slathered their publications with praise for Rebecca Skloot’s biography of the impoverished tobacco farmer. Fifty million metric tons of cells derived from the cervical tumor that killed Lacks in 1951 survive in test tubes at virtually every cell-growing laboratory in the world.

Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides a fascinating glimpse of the science that those cells, the first human tissue to replicate indefinitely outside a body, made possible. Among them : the polio vaccine, early cancer drugs, and the discovery that human cells typically contain 46 chromosomes. Driving the book, however, is an impassioned meditation (not an oxymoron when it comes to Skloot’s persistent but fair prodding) on medical ethics. Lacks was never told that her tumor samples were being used for research. (Even today, doctors would not be required to tell her.) Her family discovered their matriarch’s contribution decades after she died because of a medical-privacy lapse. As vials of the HeLa cells have sold for up to $10,000 apiece, the Lackses have struggled to pay for health insurance. And though a few conscientious scientists have attempted to organize formal celebrations of Lacks’ contributions, The Immortal Life is the first to commemorate them on any large scale.

Pleasingly, Skloot doesn’t try to answer all the questions her book raises (the most unanswerable of which is at what point an agglomeration of your cells becomes or ceases to be you). She saves the academic ethical debates for a just-long-enough afterword, but engages with the Lackses’ grievances-and the relevant objections at a steady clip throughout the book. Skloot’s quest to gain the cooperation of the family, in what she portrays as a genuine if naive manner, is as memorable as the story she initially set out to tell.