The Woman in the Photograph
Theres a photo on my wall of a woman Ive never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. Its the late 1940s and she hasnt yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside hera tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.
No one knows who took that picture, but its appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. Shes usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. Shes simply called HeLa, the code name given to the worlds first immortal human cellsher cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.
Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.
Ive spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what shed think about cells from her cervix living on foreverbought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. Ive tried to imagine how shed feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. Im pretty sure that shelike most of uswould be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.
Theres no way of knowing exactly how many of Henriettas cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, theyd weigh more than 50 million metric tonsan inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, theyd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.
I first learned about HeLa cells and the woman behind them in 1988, thirty-seven years after her death, when I was sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. He pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didnt understand, like MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations.
I was a kid whod failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. Id transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Deflers class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost.
Do we have to memorize everything on those diagrams? one student yelled.
Yes, Defler said, we had to memorize the diagrams, and yes, theyd be on the test, but that didnt matter right then. What he wanted us to understand was that cells are amazing things: There are about one hundred trillion of them in our bodies, each so small that several thousand could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. They make up all our tissuesmuscle, bone, bloodwhich in turn make up our organs.
Excerpted from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Copyright © 2010 by Rebecca Skloot. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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