Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

How I Met Henrietta

Posted by Elissa Minor Rust

henrietta in the retro suit

Henrietta Lacks

I met Henrietta Lacks in the summer of 2011. That’s strange, I know, to say that just last year I met a woman who has been dead since 1951, but reading Rebecca Skloot’s book felt that way to me, as if by reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I had become acquainted with a woman whose life is inexorably linked with my own.

I was at an academic conference in the Columbia River Gorge, and someone had brought Skloot's book to leave on the "shared book table." I was drawn to the bright orange cover, the picture of the beautiful woman in the retro flannel suit with her hands on her hips, a broad smile on her face. While my fellow conference attendees hiked the gorge during their free time, I fell deeper and deeper into Henrietta's story.

How was it possible that I hadn't known about Mrs. Lacks before this book? Her cells, taken without the knowledge or permission of her or her family, have been reproduced and used to study everything from cancer to depression; they've been sent to space with astronauts, used to develop childhood vaccines, and to help women with fertility issues conceive children. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

And yet it is the story of Henrietta and her family—of the inequity of their treatment, of the racial and economic undertones of that treatment—that keep this book from being an ode to the wonders of modern science and medicine. And for me, sitting in my room at that conference, it was Henrietta's story that made it a personal one as well: the reason I wasn't hiking with my colleagues was due to an autoimmune disease that was acting up, a disease whose primary treatments (I quickly realized) were made possible because of Henrietta's cells.

How was it possible that I hadn't known about Mrs. Lacks before this book?

Anybody in the United States today would be hard pressed to claim they have not benefited from the cells taken from Lacks without her permission, in fact. And yet here I was reading about how her family was living in poverty and without health care while the pharmaceutical companies continue to make billions of dollars off of her cells. How could I walk the balance between being grateful for the science that has saved me and the guilt behind the horrible inequity behind that science?

These are the issues at the heart of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When I was asked to chair the committee for PCC Reads for the Rock Creek Campus this year, I didn't hesitate because of the impact this book had on me. I want as many of our students, staff, and faculty to lose themselves in Skloot's narrative the way I did and maybe find themselves somewhere in these pages; I want to get this book into people's hands not because I am the committee chair for my campus, but because of a woman I met last summer named Henrietta Lacks, a woman who changed my perspective forever.

Please contact Elissa Minor Rust if you would like to share and post your thoughts on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.