Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot [TSS]

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
ISBN: 9781400052172
Pages: 384
Release Date: February 2, 2010
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary:

In 1951, a black woman from Baltimore died of cervical cancer.  She was being treated at Johns Hopkins, and without her knowledge or consent, the doctors took samples of her cells for further scientific research.  The cell strain was the first “immortal” line ever discovered – it has been used in countless numbers of scientific experiments.  Billions of dollars have been made off of it by private companies, none of which has gone to the family.  That woman’s name was Henrietta Lacks, and this is her story, the story of her descendents, and the tale of that infamous cell strain known only as HeLa.

Review:

I’ve heard amazing things about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but I wasn’t really sure how much of it was hype.  Plus, though I am interested in science, biology isn’t my forte, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read an entire book on a line of cells.  I was glad when my book club picked it as our monthly read because I knew that would force me to read a book I’m not sure I would have otherwise picked up.

Skloot really does an amazing job with this book.  She makes the science accessible and easy to understand.  At the same time, she doesn’t patronize the reader by dumbing things down for them.  I found the story of the HeLa cell line fascinating.

Skloot also puts a very human face on the story, both with Henrietta and her descendents.  The reader can’t help but sympathize with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest daughter.  Skloot develops a very personal friendship with her as she slowly gains Deborah’s trust and helps her to see that she isn’t trying to take advantage of her, like so many people who have come before.  Deborah’s health has suffered because of the stress she has endured over her mother’s cells.  At the same time, no one has taken the time to clearly explain to Deborah and her family what HeLa actually is.  Skloot demonstrates true compassion on her quest as she fights to tell the family’s story.

The ethical questions in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks make it a perfect book club read.  This book is probably one that will provoke strong opinions – on one hand, restricting HeLa and other tissue samples could stifle scientific advancement and research.  But at the same time, shouldn’t people have the right to say what happens to their cells and have some claim over them?  After all HeLa has helped millions of people and changed the face of science and medicine, yet Henrietta’s children and grandchildren can’t afford health insurance.

I really enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and highly recommend it, even if you think you might not be interested in the subject matter.  This is a book that deserves all the hype it’s getting.  Skloot’s passion for the subject and desire to uncover the truth behind what happen are infectious and make for an amazing story.

Comments

  1. Well, it is good to know that the book does live up to its hype. I don’t know if I will ever get around to reading it, but it caught my eye. I love books that get you thinking and make your blood boil a little.

  2. Well, it is good to know that the book does live up to its hype. I don’t know if I will ever get around to reading it, but it caught my eye. I love books that get you thinking and make your blood boil a little.

  3. This book has been on my wishlist for a while. Like Sandy, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading it, but still I’m glad to hear that it lived up to the hype for you.

  4. This book has been on my wishlist for a while. Like Sandy, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading it, but still I’m glad to hear that it lived up to the hype for you.

  5. Omygawd, for real? I had never heard of this but of course believe it because there are many unreal mad scientist out there who have experimented on minorities or the poor the most. *le sigh*

    I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading this book but it sounds fascinating and if you’d do a book report, I’d read that. 😛

  6. Omygawd, for real? I had never heard of this but of course believe it because there are many unreal mad scientist out there who have experimented on minorities or the poor the most. *le sigh*

    I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading this book but it sounds fascinating and if you’d do a book report, I’d read that. 😛

  7. I really enjoyed this book too. I think the most frustrating thing for the Lacks family was the fact that no one told them anything, so they had all those misconceptions about Henrietta’s cells. I thought the book made for a great discussion.

  8. I really enjoyed this book too. I think the most frustrating thing for the Lacks family was the fact that no one told them anything, so they had all those misconceptions about Henrietta’s cells. I thought the book made for a great discussion.

  9. I have been reading such good things about this book all over the place, and I am glad to see you liked it as well! I am definitely adding this one to my list. It sounds like it’s a really powerful story!

  10. I have been reading such good things about this book all over the place, and I am glad to see you liked it as well! I am definitely adding this one to my list. It sounds like it’s a really powerful story!

  11. my wife was telling about this..
    thinking about picking up an ebook of it.

  12. my wife was telling about this..
    thinking about picking up an ebook of it.

  13. I can’t wait to get to this one. Between the reviews and the stuff I’ve heard on NPR, I so intrigued.

  14. I can’t wait to get to this one. Between the reviews and the stuff I’ve heard on NPR, I so intrigued.

  15. I agree that it was a great book club pick and that the Skloot’s descriptions of the science were well done and fairly accurate.

    There are ethical dilemmas in terms of Skloot’s methods and the effects of her work on the family. Thanks to Nicole (Linus’s Blanket) for bringing this up.

  16. I agree that it was a great book club pick and that the Skloot’s descriptions of the science were well done and fairly accurate.

    There are ethical dilemmas in terms of Skloot’s methods and the effects of her work on the family. Thanks to Nicole (Linus’s Blanket) for bringing this up.

  17. This is one of my fav books so far this year. I learned so much from it, and I think Skloot’s writing definitely made it easy to read since the topic could have been dry…

    my review is here:
    http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-review-immortal-life-of-henrietta.html

  18. This is one of my fav books so far this year. I learned so much from it, and I think Skloot’s writing definitely made it easy to read since the topic could have been dry…

    my review is here:
    http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-review-immortal-life-of-henrietta.html

  19. This is one of my favorite reads this year so far as well.

    Who knew that a book about cells would be so fascinating. Skloots did a wonderful job.

  20. This is one of my favorite reads this year so far as well.

    Who knew that a book about cells would be so fascinating. Skloots did a wonderful job.

  21. Another book I’m enjoying is Cutting for Stone. Have you read that?! Oh, I’m just lovin’ it!

  22. Another book I’m enjoying is Cutting for Stone. Have you read that?! Oh, I’m just lovin’ it!

  23. The story’s most incredible because of the chance find that the researcher came across in the protagonist’s cells. Her cells, it turns out, were taken from her without her consent or knowledge, and her kin only found out when the researchers needed more of them, and so consulted them about submitting to cell samplings. No one else in her family had these immortal cells that Lacks had, which went on to accomplish some of the most important research and findings in medical history (polio vaccine, important AIDS work, etc.).

  24. The story’s most incredible because of the chance find that the researcher came across in the protagonist’s cells. Her cells, it turns out, were taken from her without her consent or knowledge, and her kin only found out when the researchers needed more of them, and so consulted them about submitting to cell samplings. No one else in her family had these immortal cells that Lacks had, which went on to accomplish some of the most important research and findings in medical history (polio vaccine, important AIDS work, etc.).

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