Monday, 12 August 2013

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

Reviewed by Rich Billington

When people talk about the extraordinary contributions made to science, names like Darwin, Einstein or Crick and Watson would probably be the first to pop in to your head. Few people have even heard of Henrietta Lacks (indeed many might be more familiar with her imposed pseudonym, Helen Lane) but her contribution to cell biology is, I think it is fair to say, immeasurable. This book is somewhat of a eulogy to her.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Unbeknown to her or her family, a small sample of her tumour was removed and given to George Gey at the tissue culture lab at Johns Hopkins. Her tumour was the first whose cells could be kept replicating indefinitely in the lab and was the beginning of cell culture. Most people are probably more familiar with the cell line derived from her tumour, HeLa cells, than the story behind the person.