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Henrietta Lacks The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was written by New York Times bestselling author, Rebecca Skloot. Her heart and desire for science and medicine aided her to write the book. She earned a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences and a MFA in creative writing. She became the founder of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation and worked in neurology labs, emergency rooms, and as a veterinary technician. Not only did Rebecca write and journalize the life of the Lacks’ but she has taught about science journalism and creative writing.
After more than a decade of journalism, research, and writing, Rebecca published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks winning numerous awards and giving the recognition the Lacks family deserves.
Born Loretta Pleasant, Henrietta Lacks, grew up in a small black town in Virginia by the name of Clover. Life was relatively normal aside from the absence of her birth parents whom one died while Henrietta was very young and the other abandoned Henrietta and her nine siblings.
At the age of 31, life for Henrietta, her family, and the rest of the world would never be the same. It was in 1951 when Henrietta “didn’t feel right.” She claimed that she had a knot inside her and her cousin Sadie suggested that she should check it out. After Henrietta inspected herself to find a hard lump in her cervix and bleeding that was not during that time of the month, she urged her husband to take her to the doctor.
The doctor at John Hopkins Hospital had examined many cervical cancer lesions but Henrietta’s case was different.
After results from a swab of what was a tumor came in from the pathology lab, Henrietta was diagnosed with “Epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I.” Knowledge of cervical carcinomas and how to treat it was relatively new and limited. Scientists and researchers alike tried to determine what was qualifiable as cervical cancer. One by the name of Dr. Richard Wesley Telinde just so happened to work at Hopkins. Many years prior, set out to find the first immortal human cells. During the second world war, scientists had proven that immortal cells were possible in rats but the head of tissue-culture research at Hopkins, George Gey, wanted to take that that a step further. Gey hoped to grow malignant cells outside the human body to discover the cause of the cancer but all his attempts failed because the cells could not last but a few days before dying. He was eager for answers and any cells he could get his hands on. Te Linde offered Gey a supply of cervical cancer tissue in exchange for trying to grow some new cells. Gey quickly took up the offer and TeLinde began taking up samples, one of which, came from Henrietta.
Henrietta insisted to her family that her condition would be “fixed right up.” She made regular visits to the doctor and they began radium treatments to treat her because her carcinoma was classified as invasive. Without her knowledge or approval, TeLinde had been taking samples from Henrietta to Gey’s lab just before her treatments. Gey had tested many cells from countless women but all samples had died. HeLa for Henrietta Lacks was written on each tubes that belonged to her. The same operation and growth process was performed with Henrietta’s cancer cells but hers were not quite like the others. They continued dividing and multiplying at an alarming rate. The birth of HeLa had begun.
As she continued to take treatments for her cervical cancer, her condition worsened. Her pains substantially increased and she quickly became unable to hardly walk. Her whole torso was charred black because of the radiation treatments. The doctors increased the doses in hopes to cure her but this only made it worse. Henrietta’s body withered and became engulfed in tumors. Henrietta died on October 4, 1951 but her cells would live on. She had no knowledge of the scientific breakthrough that was her cells.
For the first time in history, her cells were produced on an industrial scale. HeLa cells were shipped across the globe for numerous reasons. Within a few decades, HeLa helped discover a vaccine for polio, an enzyme called telomerase, and much more. Her cells advanced the medical world with cloning and gene mapping. Henrietta’s children had no knowledge of what scientists had done with her mother’s cells until the seventies and even now much of the world knows nothing of who Henrietta Lacks is. “I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman.” Those were not plant cells. They did not belong to a monkey. They did not come from a microscopic organism. Those cells were human; they came from a live person. Millions of dollars of profit made, none of which even went to Henrietta or her family for many decades, came from a human’s body. An innocent human such as her had no idea of what her body would become. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a powerful book. It displayed the inhumanity of man’s selfishness and unjust reality for blacks in the 1900s. This book is a must read for science fanatics or anyone interested in history. It speaks volumes about where the world has improved both racially and scientifically.
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