The mortal life of Henrietta Lacks wasn't especially remarkable: Born in rural Virginia in 1920, she grew up on the tobacco fields her ancestors farmed as slaves; got pregnant at 13 and again at 16; got married four years later; moved to Baltimore, where her husband worked the steel mill and she gave birth to three more children; died of cervical cancer in the "coloured" ward of Johns Hopkins in 1951.
The afterlife of Henrietta Lacks, however, proved nothing short of extraordinary and is at the centre of Rebecca Skloot's impressive first book, at once an engaging tour through scientific discovery, a thoughtful meditation on race and ethics, and an intimate biography of a family betrayed.
Since before the turn of the 20th century, scientists had struggled to grow living tissues outside the human body; every sample they removed died soon after. But Lacks's cancerous cells - taken without her knowledge, just months before her death - were altogether different. Termed HeLa (after the first two letters of the patient's full name), they grew like crabgrass, doubling in size every 24 hours, filling as much space as lab technicians could provide.
They proved to be "the first immortal human cells: a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample, cells that would constantly replenish themselves and never die."
Isolated at a time when researchers were starting to understand how viruses spread, HeLa ignited a scientific revolution. The cells developed the polio vaccine, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization; they helped uncover the mysteries of space, cloning and the effects of the atomic bomb. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks makes clear that, stacked on a scale, all the HeLa ever cultured would weigh more than 100 Empire State Buildings; stretched end to end, they'd easily wrap around the Earth three times. They have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet back in East Baltimore, Lacks's children - who couldn't themselves afford to see a doctor - spent two decades knowing nothing of their mother's contribution.
The news broke simply by chance, in 1973, through a passing comment made to Lacks's daughter-in-law that part of Henrietta was still alive. Only a year before, the public had learned about the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which researchers recruited poor, uneducated black men with the disease and watched them die painful, preventable deaths.
Against this backdrop of experimentation, Skloot deftly shows why the Lacks family would instinctively entertain dark visions of science-fiction horror. When Deborah, the youngest daughter, read that HeLa had been spliced with tobacco cells, she feared that scientists had created "a human-plant monster that was half her mother, half tobacco." When she found out the cells were used to study viruses like AIDS and Ebola, she pictured "her mother eternally suffering the symptoms of each disease."
No one - not a doctor from Johns Hopkins, not the reporters who came to the door - ever adequately explained to the family "the existence of [their mother's]cells, and the science that made them possible." That task fell to Skloot, a young graduate student who spent 10 self-funded years at work on this book, slowly winning the trust of the Lackses by refusing to be clinical or condescending. Like Lewis Thomas, the author of The Lives of the Cell, Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.
Let no one fault Skloot for lack of ambition: either of the two stories she navigates - Henrietta and her descendants; HeLa and its legacy - could easily pack the pages of a satisfying book. Yet she skillfully maintains the momentum of her narratives, winding their twin strands together as seamlessly as a double helix.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks boasts numerous hallmarks of great non-fiction, with its indefatigable reporting, command of suspense and nuance, and careful examination of key issues like informed consent. But in the end, it is Skloot's literary flair for colour and character, for the telling gesture, for the heartbreaking detail, that brings every page of this debut to astonishing life.
Danielle Groen is a Toronto-based writer whose cells, regrettably, haven't done much for science.