Book Reviews: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot


When I first heard the name Henrietta Lacks it rang no bells. I, like the majority of the world’s population, have never heard of her, but her story is amazing! In this nonfiction account of her life, Skloot introduces us to not only Henrietta, but to her children and the huge impact that she had on the world, without us ever knowing it.

In 1951 Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the time, she was only 31 and she had 5 young children. She and her husband could barely make ends meet and medical bills for Johns Hopkins soon began to pile up. As a poor African-American woman in the ‘50s, Lacks had few options and within a year of her diagnosis she was dead.

Before she died, Johns Hopkins researchers took a sample of her cells to study. Unlike hundreds of similar samples, Lack’s cells didn’t die, instead they reproduced with an amazing rapidity. The cells, named HeLa for the first two letters in Lack’s first and last names, soon changed the face of the medical world. They were used in the research of and creation of cures for many diseases, including Polio, AIDS and cancer, making millions of dollars for the people involved in the studies. Yet Henrietta’s family was never made aware of this and no one ever asked them for permission to use the cells.

One of Henrietta’s daughters, Deborah, becomes the key figure of Skloot’s research. In the end, the story is as much her’s as her mother’s. She has grown up never knowing the full extent of her mother’s cells impact on the medical field. She’s at times skeptical and suspicious and at others warm and welcoming. Her family has experienced countless deceptions and tragedies and they have no reason to believe anything authority figures tell them.

I was fascinated by Skloot’s experiences while researching the book. She can’t help becoming involved in the story and seeing everything unfold through her eyes makes it even more powerful. Though the story deals with complicated medical concepts and ethical dilemmas, Skloot simplifies everything, making it very reader friendly. The story itself wrenched my heart, while at the same time educating me on so much, which is a difficult balance to pull off. It was a great read.

Sandy (You’ve Gotta Read This) has a wonderful review here.


B said...

This book was recommended to me by a friend a few weeks ago. I'm not huge on non-fiction, but this one sounds really fascinating.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Loved this story for so many reasons. Great Review!

Anonymous said...

this sounds interesting, thanks for the review :)

Amanda said...

Oh, I just heard a Radiolab story on this--fascinating!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Brenna - This didn't even feel like nonfiction. It wasn't dry at all.

Jenners said...

Every time I read a review of this book, I think I really need to read it. First Sandy. Now you. Thanks for pushing me over "the fence" to get this book.

Teacher/Learner said...

Wow, isn't that comforting to know that in the event of someone's death, she contributed so much to remedy what took her life.

By the way, if you'd like to participate, I've tagged you. Check it out here :o)

Karena said...

This sounds so fascinating!! I love your site!

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Art by Karena

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

I’ve also read it read it recently and also gave it a 4/5. I thought that closer to the end Skloot focused too much of her own experiences with the Lacks family. My favorite parts were the ones where she presented in a very (as you put it) reader-friendly way the ethics of using HeLa cells. Definitely one of the best non-fiction of the year.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Teacher/Learner - Isn't that amazing! She had such an impact, but never knew it.

Alexandra - I definitely agree that I liked it better when she kept herself a bit more out of the equation. You could tell she wasn't expecting to feel so involved in the story.

Captain Nick Sparrow said...

My book club just chose this for our next read last night! Good to know you liked it!

mari said...

I read this recently for my book club - we all loved it. Skloot did an amazing job and wrote the story like a thriller. I couldn't put it down! I did wonder what course Henrietta's life would have taken had she lived and died 25 years later. Would she have been notified of her rights as a patient? Would her family have been told about her cells? Would the lives of her children and grandchildren be very different?

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Mari - I know! I think her children's lives would have been completely different. I think a major issue was the fact that she was a black woman in 1951 when it happened. They wouldn't have even offered her the same considerations as they would a man or a white person. It's awful.