Apr 12, 2018 11:00 AM

Author: Allison Elmer, CPH, Cancer Information Specialist

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 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 National Minority Health Month, which focuses on health disparities among racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States.

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.

During National Library Week (April 8-14), stop by the Cancer Learning Center on the 6th floor of the HCI hospital or see our online catalog to check out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Or find another book, CD, or play-a-way that grabs your attention.

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

Image courtesy of NIH.

Allison Elmer, CPH, Cancer Information Specialist

The G. Mitchell Morris Cancer Learning Center

cancer learning center cervical cancer minority health health equity

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