June 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The story of Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cancer cells gave rise to the famous HeLa cellline is not a story about the glories of medicine; it is instead about racism, science and the price of poverty.

HeLa cells are the most commonly used cell lines in medical research. They orginally came from a woman who was forgotten by the scientific establishment.  This book tells the harrowing story of what happened to Henrietta,  whose death helped change the face of modern medicine.

It is a powerful story and there are three main strands to the book: Henrietta’s short life and terrible death, the story of her cancer cells and most tragically, the story of her family and the author’s journey with them in writing this book.

The entwining strands can be a little confusing at times, but the story is so extraordinary that it is still a gripping read. It has the flow of a fiction book  it is the stark truth of events that make it so compelling.

There are moments when it seems almost unbelievable that these things actually happened. The story of Henrietta’s daughter Elsie, and her forgotten existence in a mental asylum at the mercy of scientific experimentation is particularly shocking.

Scientists do not come out well in this story. That is, the white scientists involved do not come out well in this. The uncomfortable idea that this would never have happened to a rich, white woman is lurking between the pages.

It is this injustice that is somewhat rectified by this telling of Henrietta’s story. But this is a book about the redemption of science. It is the truly intimate story of one woman’s death and the repercussions on her family and on the modern world.

Henrietta Lacks