From the age of 16 when she took a biology class at a community college (making up for a failed high school freshman year because “she never showed up”), award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot has seemingly spent the majority of her life preparing to write this book.
Along with mitosis and kinase inhibitors, Skloot first learned about the ubiquitous HeLa cells, “‘one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,’” the professor told the class. HeLa was instrumental in developing the polio vaccine and furthering cancer research, while the drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease owe their origins to HeLa. Eventually, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping would also become possible because of HeLa, and five Nobel Prizes in the last 10 years alone would be awarded for HeLa-dependent research.
Back in that classroom, Skloot also learned that HeLa cells originated from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who had died at age 31 in 1951 from cervical cancer. Her cells proved “immortal,” living longer outside her body than within. The professor added, “almost as an afterthought,” that Lacks “was a black woman.” Then class was over.
“I sat thinking, That’s it? That’s all we get? There has to be more to the story.” As if in preparation to find out that “more,” Skloot went on to get her undergraduate degree in biology, then studied writing in graduate school. She spent 10 years tracking down Henrietta’s story, gaining unprecedented access to Henrietta’s children and extended family, many of whom still live in the Baltimore area where Henrietta’s immortal cells were originally extracted at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Skloot would develop a vital bond with Henrietta’s youngest child, daughter Deborah, who was only a year old when her mother passed away.
The result is spectacular. Part mystery, part memoir, part scientific adventure, part family saga, part tragedy (of epic Greek proportions), Skloot’s accomplishment can’t be overpraised. The less you know before you open the pages, the more intense your reading experience will be … so try not to dig further. Just know that you need to read this book.