Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She
was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave
ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the
most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown
in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for
more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a
scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a
hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the
polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom
bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro
fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold
by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the
"colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white
laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta's small,
dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters,
faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children
and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta's family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than
twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began
using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And
though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells
human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As
Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past
and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of
experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the
legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became
enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta's
daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells.
She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did
it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot
them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a
mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so
important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put
down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty
and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
In the end, as the rabbi nears death and a
harsh winter threatens the pastor's wobbly church, Albom sadly fulfills
the last request and writes the eulogy. And he finally understands what
both men had been teaching all along: the profound comfort of believing
in something bigger than yourself.
Have a Little Faith is
a book about a life's purpose; about losing belief and finding it
again; about the divine spark inside us all. It is one man's journey,
but it is everyone's story.