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.