The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

May 6, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): 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?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Liked:

  • I had severe reservations about reading a book with such a scientific bent, but I simply couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews I’ve been seeing everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE.) I was shopping for cell phones one day and was in the middle of an htc review when the person mentioned this book. Seriously!!! As a result, I decided to give Henrietta Lacks a try — and was rewarded with one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in a long, long time. I positively tore through this book because the story was that compelling and engaging!
  • I’m glad the Lacks family finally got some answers about what really happened with their mother’s cells and with sister Elsie. I’m a bit miffed that it took a good-looking, young white reporter to help them get those answers, but at least now they know.
  • I thought Skloot did a tremendous job of explaining the science of HeLa so that laypeople could understand it. Sure, it helped that we also got the watered-down explanations that were also meant for Deborah’s benefit, but even the strictly narrative parts were done well.
  • This has to be one of the most fascinating subjects I’ve ever read about. It’s amazing to think that the cancerous cells of one random, hitherto anonymous black woman from Virginia could have such a tremendously positive impact on science and the world in general.
  • I appreciated Skloot’s portrayal of the various members of the Lacks family and agreed with her decision to show them warts and all. If she had tried to “pretty up” their speech or hide their various run-ins with the law, that would have done a disservice to both the family and readers.
  • I like that Skloot set up a scholarship fund to ensure that Henrietta’s descendants will have an opportunity to pursue higher education. I believe Deborah — and Henrietta herself — would have been ecstatic to learn that the plan came to fruition.

Disliked:

  • My heart ached for Elsie, especially with the knowledge that no one ever visited her again after Henrietta died. That poor, poor child.
  • Deborah’s death scene was terribly poignant. It was well-written and touching, so I’m not including it in this section because it somehow detracted from the book. I just HATE the fact that Deborah, after going along for the 10-year ride and contributing so significantly to Skloot’s book, didn’t get to see the final product — or to see how the reading public has embraced her mother’s story. She deserved to see that, dammit!
  • I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Deborah, with her very limited amount of formal schooling, to try to understand what happened to Henrietta. I think a lot of her heartache (not her anger, mind you, but her heartache) would have been diminished had she been able to understand from the beginning. I liked that she tried to get an education, and wish again that she had lived so that she could have used some of the book’s proceeds to take those classes she wanted to sign up for.
  • The Afterword went on a bit long. By the time Skloot finished the “Where Are They Now” portion about the Lacks family, I was ready to close the book. But then she continued with the ethical issues regarding cell and tissue harvesting. I understand the desire to include that part in the book, and agree that it does fit in with the subject matter, but — it simply wasn’t for me. A condensed version consisting of a few pages (with perhaps a list of resources for those that want to investigate further) would have sufficed.

Rating:

Without a doubt, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Rebecca Skloot is a talented writer who does a tremendous job of making an already interesting story even more gripping and personal. This is a book that held my complete attention from beginning to end, and I’m sure it will captivate you as well. I give it 5 stars out of 5.

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