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