You may not know of her, but your life has been directly, enormously impacted by Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta, a stout and pretty rural Virginian born in 1920, was the devoted mother of five, including a disabled eldest daughter on whom she doted. She looked after friends and neighbors, too. Henrietta accepted the hard work of tobacco farming, though she knew she might have accomplished much more. She loved to dance and tended her looks, particularly her nails, which were perfectly polished nearly to the day she died at age 31.
And Henrietta suffered an agonizing and possibly preventable death from cervical cancer — because she was poor, black and undereducated at a time when those things were often a death sentence if you were desperately ill, even if you had access to healthcare.
But part of Henrietta lived on.
In the late ’80s, Rebecca Skloot — then a bright but restless Illinois high-school student — became aware of Mrs. Lacks literally cell by cell when alternative schooling landed her in a community-college biology course. There, her instructor taught his students about “HeLa” cells — “He” for Henrietta, “La” for Lacks, though few people knew that. Cells that, unbeknownst to Henrietta, were taken from her body during treatment at Johns Hopkins University, code-named, studied and eventually dispensed throughout the world. Because they, unlike other cells researchers attempted to keep viable, not only survived outside of Henrietta’s body, but reproduced at an unprecedented and robust rate. And they still are today.
Though her embattled family wouldn’t know it until a quarter-century later, Henrietta’s “immortal” cells — by then replicated more than 50 tons’ worth — were central to researching and treating everything from polio, cancer, AIDS and Parkinson’s disease to lactose intolerance, wrinkles and the effects of antigravity and nuclear radiation on people. All without public recognition or a nickel of compensation to her widower, sons, daughters and grandchildren, despite Henrietta’s indelible role in the multibillion-dollar medical industry.
And so Skloot made it her mission to learn more about this unsung heroine and to ensure that Henrietta, her family and her impact on humanity got their due. Skloot’s 2010 nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — a decade-plus effort that documented Henrietta’s fate and contributions, and Skloot’s bond with the proud and wounded Lacks family — became an instant and lasting bestseller. Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) soon optioned the work for this month’s HBO film of the same name.
Made with the cooperation and input of the Lacks family, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks stars Winfrey as Henrietta’s younger daughter (and most vocal proponent) Deborah, Rose Byrne as the tireless Skloot and Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta herself. Told from the colorful Deborah’s perspective, the film chronicles a troubled daughter’s effort to learn more about the mother she never knew and to comprehend the scope of Henrietta’s impact on medicine, all with Skloot by her side. It’s a story of family, friendship, medical arrogance and advancement, race, and the unsettling matter of our right to the very stuff of our own bodies — with a real, brave, doomed and, at long last, celebrated woman at its core.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres Saturday, April 22 at 8/7c on HBO