Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown
Publish Date: February 2, 2010
Source: Own

Why You're Reading This Book:

  • You're looking for a non-fiction that reads like fiction.
  • You want to learn a little something.
What's the Story?:

From "Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists 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 Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

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 though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? "

My Two Cents:

I had heard a ton of really good things about this book but just hadn't gotten around to reading it yet so I was very excited when my book club picked to read the book. I ended up having to buy a copy (my book club is usually pretty good about picking books that are already at the library to lessen the burden on us) because there was still a crazy long wait list at the library and the book is already almost two years old! I always get excited about books that have been out for awhile but still have a long wait to read. 

I was entranced with this book. A decade in the making, Skloot explores the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a little known woman, whose cells have helped scientists do really amazing things. Her cells have been launched into space. They've helped to make vaccines. They've been tested on by many different people and until this book, many people didn't really even know the name of the woman that the cells came from. All this from someone's cells being taken without her knowing. Although the idea of having one's cells taken without their knowledge does bring up sort of a ethical dilemma, that is not really the crux of the book. Skloot does present the dilemma but this is really more of a human story. It would have been nice to get a little more information on the dilemma though.

Admittedly, I'm not a science person. I'm fascinated by science but I'll put it this way, I hated sitting in my high school and college science classes. Obviously the subject matter of the book is science-y but Skloot does a great job of making the science-y parts of the book accessible to all. The real story at the heart of this book is the story of Lacks' family finding out all of the things that Henrietta's cells have done. Really amazing!

Bottom line: I know some of you are afraid of non-fiction books but this one is really wonderful and I hope that you will give it a try!


  1. Someday I will have to read this. I've had it on my wishlist for so long, and so many trusted bloggers keep raving about it. The Xmas list perhaps..

  2. I found a copy of this in my library, but only after hunting for it week after week! It's still on my TBR but I can't wait to get started; this is the first review I've seen of it so I'm glad it's so positive!

  3. Great review. I've been meaning to check this out for a really long time!

  4. I thought the audio version of this one was just so interesting. Glad u had a chance to read this one as well.

  5. So great that you loved this... and a nice reminder about this book - one I would still love to read and just never got to. Sounds like both an important story and very well-written book.

  6. I am adding this to my TBR list right away. Sounds absolutely fascinating.

  7. This one's been on my TBR for far too long! You're book club has great taste - I can't wait to read this one.

  8. @Trisha It'd be a great book to get for Christmas :)

  9. Loved this insightful book. It was a pleasure meeting the Lacks family and my undying gratitude goes to Henrietta as her HeLa cells have improved the world as we know it immensely.


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