This February marks the 10th anniversary of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This non-fiction book was translated into more than 25 languages, spent 75 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, awarded the National Academies Best Book of the Year, won the Heartland Prize for non-fiction, and was named a 100 New York Times Notable Books of the Year. It has garnered praise from multiple media outlets including Oprah, NPR, and Entertainment Weekly. On top of it all, it became a television movie in 2017 by HBO starring Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, and Renée Elise Goldsberry.
The book is about a woman named Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to medicine. Her cancer cells made the immortal cell line known as HeLa in 1951. These immortal cells have grown in culture and are still alive today, despite Lacks’ passing.
A Brief Summary
Skloot tells the story of Lacks and how her family didn’t learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists looked into her husband and children for research without informed consent. Through the relationships Skloot develops with Lack’s family, she showcases the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, how bioethics began, and the legal battles that ensued towards the morals and compensation of the practice.
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950s. Through her treatment for cancer, doctors isolated what would be the first “immortal cells.”
These cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine, uncovering secrets of cancer and viruses, and even learning about the atom bomb’s effects. It also led to advances such as in-vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.
Today, scientists still use HeLa cells to better understand how to battle viruses such as HIV, herpes, Zika, measles, mumps, and more. By reproducing HeLa cells, they are able to infect the cells with different viruses and learn how they work and grow. Every day they get one step closer to finding a new treatment or vaccine.
In honor of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 10th anniversary on February 2nd, here are some books featuring other stories of strong women and how their footprint on earth have helped those who came after them: