Those of you who follow this blog know that previously my work had focussed on memento mori, how we remember those who have passed, but I wanted to take this idea in a new direction.
The book really struck me. The subject is Henrietta Lacks, but scientists today know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—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.
If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet, until Skloot’s work, Henrietta Lacks remained virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
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 although the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits.
This led me to question the extent to which we truly own the stuff of which we are made. It also made me question the way in which I’d previously viewed mortality and memory. Henrietta may be dead, but her legacy lives, her cells are still alive and have helped millions of people, although she is no longer with us.