Rebecca Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, defies easy classification. With a sensitive heart, a knowledge of science, an investigative reporter's zeal, and a novelist's skill, Skloot combines biography, medicine, science, detective thriller, social critique, and medicolegal inquiry. This layered approach is at once moving, sad, funny, and deeply unsettling. The book is not perfect, but ultimately it is an irresistible read.
At the center of the book is the HeLa cell line. The story of HeLa begins in 1951, when Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black mother of 5, received treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer. Without telling her, physicians removed a dime-sized slice of Lacks' tumor and sent it to a hospital laboratory, where George Gey had for years been unsuccessfully trying to grow human cells outside the body. The cells were marked “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks, and as he had done with other cells he had received from the hospital, Gey placed them onto clots of chicken blood in test tubes and covered them with culture medium to determine if they would grow.