Apr 12, 2018 11:00 AM


a woman reads a book about cancer

Updated February 2019

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an acclaimed nonfiction book about the revolutionary research, ethical questions, and racism wrapped up in one woman’s cancer story. It’s a good selection for African American History Month in February or National Minority Health Month in April.

In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to have a doctor look at a “knot” in her womb, which turned out to be cervical cancer. Her doctor took two biopsies, one of cancer cells and one of healthy cells. The cells were taken without Lacks’s knowledge or consent.

Lacks’s cells ended up in the lab of cell biologist Dr. George Gey. Because of a mutation, her cells were able to survive and reproduce outside of the body. Dr. Gey grew the cells continuously in the lab, something that had never been done before.  

Named after the first two letters of her first and last name, the HeLa cells were used in many different medical experiments because they could be grown so easily in the lab. HeLa enabled the development of in vitro fertilization, the first clone of a human cell, the development of the polio vaccine, advances in gene mapping, and more.

Before this book, very few people knew the source of HeLa cells. The book introduces us to the woman who helped change modern medicine. It also considers the ethical dilemmas of using patient cells without knowledge or consent, the way race played a part in how Lacks was treated, and the impact on her family decades later.

Visit the Cancer Learning Center to check out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or find more resources about cancer.

graphic shows timeline of henrietta lack's story and hela cell research

Image courtesy of NIH. Click to view full-sized image.

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