1. If you have had anything medical, even taking over-the-counter meds, you've had some relationship to Henrietta's cells.
2. If Henrietta's cells have brought billions to doctors and researchers, why can't her children afford health insurance?
Skloot writes this going between the human branch -- the Lacks -- and the science branch. Since I'm not going to write a book, I'm going to do them separately.
Henrietta Lacks was married young and had almost no education. She married her cousin, as her family did, and she had five children -- three boys and two girls -- Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr./Sonny, Deborah, and Joe/Zakariyya. They lived in the "home-house" which was a tiny wood house with missing boards in Clover, Virginia. They lived by growing and selling tobacco. Hanrietta started feeling some pain in her cervix (although she knew none of these terms) right before the last baby and when she saw the doctor later, he didn't see anything wrong.
She'd gone to Johns Hopkins because they had a ward that treated coloreds (Skloot uses their words, so I will, too) free. She kept going back until finally a doctor noticed a tumor on her cervix. He took a biopsy (nobody asked consent of coloreds back then) and handed it over to the researcher at the hospital who was trying to make a long-term cell line.
Henrietta died very soon after, covered with tumors, and was buried near her mother in an unmarked grave. Lawrence went into the military and then married Bobbette who had a firm hand. Elsie was taken to an institution for Insane Negros. Henrietta visited her once a week, but after she died, nobody visited Elsie and she died when she was 15. Sonny lived a bit on the edge with drug dealing and alcohol. Deborah listened to Bobbette and didn't marry a cousin -- she and her siblings were all at least partly deaf and there were a number of mutated members of their cousins. She had children of her own and worked as a hairstylist. Joe was thrown out of just about anything he'd joined, but when he ended up in prison, he met Islam and changed his name. That made him somewhat less violent.
When the children found out their mother's cells were being used to make all sorts of things and money, they were confused -- they didn't have much education and didn't know what cells were and how they were being used. They'd been contacted so many times by people who only cared about the cells that Skloot was refused information at first. They didn't believe she wanted to write about their mother, and she was white. Skloot gets over that, over a lot of years, primarily with Deborah, which let her write this book.
Now, speaking of Henrietta's cells, the researcher found out they lasted forever and started sending them out to other doctors and researchers. They grew like crazy in a standard medium and could be, and were, used to find many new medical products: vaccinations, cures for diseases, medications, just about everything in the medical field. Henrietta's cells were sent to space and blown up in a nuke.
The more scientists knew about Henrietta's cells, now called HeLa, the more they wanted to make money from them. A large corporation started selling the cells and made a vast amount of money. As researchers used HeLa, someone found that HeLa was contaminating other cultures because they were so virilent they could float around on dust motes. That still happens -- HeLa contaminates products and people lose millions of dollars.
It's only when Skloot starts talking to the children that they learn what's happened to their mother's cells; she takes them to see HeLa in a microscope. Deborah calms down, although the guys are still rather suspicious.
Skloot also covers cell cultures from other people and bioethics -- as much as we have so far -- leading up to this year. One instance of which is that if you give blood or have tissue taken (Pap smear, for example), the doctor can use that for research. They're within their rights to refuse to treat you if you won't consent to the use of the parts of you.
There's a set of pictures in the middle, a long Afterward, a Long Acknowledgements, a long Notes, and a long Index, all of which are very complete and useful if you want to know more about race, poverty, bioethics, and medicine.
This book was very good and at the same time rather harrowing. I highly recommend it.