Thursday, February 24, 2011

Truly Extraordinary Story for Black History Month and Beyond


This month, I have been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. It is a wonderfully written and impeccably researched book about an unknown African American woman whose cells, taken without her knowledge, would help medical research for decades to come. It is such a multi-faceted story about racism, poverty, and medical ethics, that I can’t fully do it justice. Here is the publisher’s description below.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.


As the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we are devoted to giving “voices” back to those who suffered injustices and did not have the agency to speak for themselves. This book certainly does just that and I recommend it highly for that reason.

I think you will agree that there are countless stories that remain to be told about African American experiences. Several of those stories are told in our traveling exhibition, Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, now on view at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Visit our website for upcoming venues for all our traveling exhibitions.

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