In 1951 Henrietta died of a most virulent case of cervical cancer. The doctors at John Hopkins cut cells from her cancerous cervix a few months before she died. These cells were the first ones to live - and propagate in a petri dish. The scientific and medical community were electrified by this turn of events because they had been trying for years to grow cells and had been unable to do so. With HEnrietta LAcks' cells, called HELA (and pronounced hee-lah) they were suddenly and miraculously able to move forward with scientific experiments that they had thus far only dreamed of.
HELA cells were soon shipped around the world for scientists to use in their own laboratories. HELA cells are alive today and still in use for every type of scientific and medical experiment. Henrietta Lacks' cells "...went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity... they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, [and] in vitro fertilization."
But this book isn't just about the HELA cells and what they've done for science. It is a moving story of Henrietta's life, her surviving family, and how even today - despite the remarkable advances found with the use of her cells - none of her family has medical insurance.
It is the story of a medical community that felt it was unnecessary to inform Henrietta or her family that the cells had been taken, used, researched and propagated into the trillions. One scientist estimated that you could lay all of the HELA cells ever made - end to end - and they would circle the earth 3 times. Think about this and the fact that you can put about 10,000 cells on the head of a pin.
Skloot deftly moves between Henrietta's story, the story of her family, and the ethics of removing tissue without the consent of the patient. Skloot reviews court cases and ferrets out what the existing laws and mores were then and now; helping to define for the lay reader what IS law, and what is simple, common practice.
In the midst of all of this, you learn of Elsie, Henrietta's eldest daughter who died in Crownsville State Hospital - more commonly known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. She had a diagnosis of 'idiocy'. Then there is Joe, Henrietta's youngest, who was beaten and abused by his step-mother far more than the other children. He grew up troubled and ended up a murderer before converting to Islam and changing his name to Zakariyya.
With this book, Skloot and Henrietta's family teach the world about their mother and in turn learn about their past and what their mother's remarkable cells have truly done for our world.