I'm always stunned when I learn about a piece of history that seems much more like fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is just such a case. With each page, I couldn't help but shake my head in disbelief.
In the 1950's, Henrietta Lacks, a young African-American mother of five, is diagnosed with a cervical tumor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her doctor removes some of her cancerous cells without her knowledge. Henrietta eventually passes away from her disease, but her cells live on. HeLa cells, as they are known, multiplied and multiplied...becoming the first human cells to do so in a laboratory. Since that time, HeLa cells have been used in experiments that have led to some of the greatest scientific innovations in the past century.
Skloot weaves together this story with the story of Lacks' husband and children in modern-day Baltimore. How is it that the children of the woman who made one of the most important contributions to science can't afford their own health insurance? She examines what has become of Henrietta's descendants and the impact that the knowledge of what happened to their mother's cells has had on them.
Skloot raises important questions about poverty, science, research and medical ethics in a book that reads more like a novel than reality. It is fascinating, deeply troubling and essential reading about medical issues that are still important today.