The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a non-fiction book focusing on Henrietta Lacks, the cervical cancer victim whose cells doctors harvested in 1951 and used to create the HeLa line of immortal cells popular in research studies. Ms. Lacks was a peasant farmer who lived in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and five children. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in early 1951 and underwent treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the same city where doctors harvested cells from her cancerous tumor before her death in October of the same year. These cells continue to live today, used in medical research and other areas.
Rebecca Skloot authored the book with assistance from Lack’s family who never knew about the HeLa line until the 1975, and never benefited from the billion-dollar industry that her cells created. Skloot used a descriptive yet simple approach in describing scientific concepts and terms to enable the reader to easily understand some of the more technical aspects of the topic. She also focused on ethical questions regarding the health industry’s documented tendency to conduct scientific and medical experiments on African Americans without their knowledge. This focus triggered animated discussions with respect to bioethics and the role of informed consent in furthering scientific endeavors. The author admits relying Henrietta’s family to reconstruct the story, especially a journal that daughter Deborah provided, sharing some of the intimate details of the family as well as her mother. In the book Deborah is full of questions ranging from wondering whether scientists cloned her mother to suspecting they murdered her with the intention of harvesting her cells.
For her efforts, Skloot won numerous prestigious awards and even inspired a movie treatment starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Lacks.