September 12, 2011


"it was the story of white selling black, of black cultures 'contaminating' white ones with a single cell in an era when a person with 'one drop' of black blood had only recently gained the legal right to marry a white person. It was also the story of cellls from an uncredited black woman becoming one of the most important tools in medicine.  
This was big news"
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, page 197

I am overdue for my "10 things I learned in Ob-Gyn" and still working on it. But in the meantime I had to share with all of you this INCREDIBLE book that I'm reading right now because you need to go out and BUY IT and read it.  It's called "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and is a mix between the Help (also amazing) and the The Double Helix by Watson (of Watson and Crick, who discovered the form of DNA).  We learn about some of this in medical school but not like this.  And for those of you not in medical school, I still think you won't be able to put it down, maybe even more so.

The story weaves between the life of the woman and the progression of the science behind the creation of the first cell line that is now ubiquitous in research of everything from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization.  Cells taken from Henrietta Lack's cervical cancer tumor in the 1950s, when she was only 30 years old and being treated in the "Black Only" section of Johns Hopkins, were used without permission or information to create a cell line that was immortal.

Without giving too much away about the book, I'll tell you why I think it's incredible and especially why I can't put it down.  It begins with a black woman growing up in the 1950s who feels "a knot" growing "inside her" and eventually goes to Johns Hopkins (the only hospital at the time in her area that even treated black people) and learns that she has cervical cancer.  In the midst of treating her (with radium and high intensity radiation that burnt the skin of her entire abdomen), the physicians took a sample of the tumor and sent it to a research lab at Hopkins that had been trying, unsuccessfully, to grow a line of cells.  The book covers everything from cervical cancer in the 1950s, the invention of pap smears (in the 1940s, but didn't gain popularity until the 1970s, and treatments for cervical cancer in the 1950s), to race relations in Maryland, to the Tuskegee experiment and the progression of laws protecting patients and/or medical research subjects, to the development of cell lines and what science thought it could do with them, Jewish doctors refusing to do research in the US on poor black people without their consent because WW2 wasn't that far in the past and they remembered, the trials and tribulations of trying to create immortality, and more.

Anyways, you should read it as soon as possible and tell me what you think.
"We must not see any person as an abstraction.
Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secretes,
with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, 
and with some measure of triumph.
-Elie Wiesel
from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code
(also on the cover page of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)


  1. I did really like "immortal life ..." but comparing it to "the help" made me wince. Here are a couple of articles on the problematic nature of "the help" (both the book and the movie).

  2. Thanks for these articles - they (and you) make some great points! While I actually loved the Help, I realize it contains some serious problems with what it leave out (notably any intact, supportive black household). I want to clarify that I don't think these books have similar takes on race relations in the south - in fact they are very different. What I was really trying to say (maybe not so well?) is that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks flows like a novel more than a straight science book and therefore readers who would not be interested necessarily in reading about the establishment of the first cell line would still find it compelling.