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Science, mystery, theater

  • Jul 18, 2013
The way Skloot blends all three of these elements in this account are what makes this an immensely readable account.  The bare facts of the science, while interesting, are not news, but Skloot does a good job putting the bare facts in layman's terms without seeming to talk down to us.  She presents the story in a way that unfolds like a mystery--why is Henrietta Lacks immortal, and why and how did her family not know it.  And as Skloot unfolds the story she lets herself into the story in a way that provides the theatrical interest that keeps the reader turning pages.

The science is the basis of the story.  Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was being treated at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s with a virulent form of cancer. During her treatment her doctor harvested some of the cancerous cells for later study, and after her rapid and untimely death the cells were found to be exceptionally resilient and quick to replicate.  From those initial cells the entire field of cell study was created, diseases were documented and cures identified--and then the cells, by then replicated trillions of times over and sold and shared to nearly every lab and country on earth, nearly brought the science to a halt because of their ubiquity and potential mishandling.

The mystery starts early in the account.  While Henrietta's husband signed a consent form allowing an autopsy, no consent form exists for the harvesting of her cells earlier because none was ever given her to sign.  That really is not a mystery since none was required.at the time; the mystery is that she and her family never understood that the cells had been captured and how they were being used.  Skloot found from her research and interviews that Henrietta though she was being tested for cancer.  Was it a case of Johns Hopkins intentionally withholding information from a working-class African-American woman so they could profit from her contribution (the view of some of her surviving family), or of a poorly-educated woman from a working-class family failing to understand the information provided by her doctor then disappearing into her Baltimore-area neighborhood with no contact information (the argument made by Johns Hopkins when the questions started).

So far this sounds like a moderately interesting popular science history.  The story moves to the next level when Skloot tries to find Henrietta Lacks in the literature (her cells are sold and labelled as HeLa) and her family in Baltimore and her birthplace in rural southern Virginia.  Skloot found Henrietta's children very much alive and angry with Johns Hopkins, scientists, and reporters, who the family felt had lied to and exploited them over the years.  Daughter Deborah didn't remember her mother when she lived, and was haunted by the science and fiction of what she understood about the cells and what they were used for.  Skloot's request for interviews for her book were first accepted and then rejected as an off-again off-again on-again relationship Deborah and her father and brothers began that lasted for nearly a decade as Skloot earned the family's trust.  Skloot doesn't shy away from her central role in the story, and the result is a fun, fast, sad, poignant, and ultimately satisfyingly human account.

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More The Immortal Life of Henrietta... reviews
review by . February 17, 2011
   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the medical and scientific progress brought about with the help of the longest-surviving cell line in history; it's also the story of the woman who unknowingly contributed those cells to research, and the effects of that contribution on the woman's family      Rebecca Skloot spent years with the story of Henrietta Lacks, who died prematurely of an advanced case pf metastasized cervical cancer - a case that …
Quick Tip by . August 09, 2010
Read it! I'm serious. Stop reading this, go. Now! Shoo!
review by . April 04, 2010
One of the things that I remember about my childhood in the 1950s and 60s was how little could be done for family members who became ill. The word "cancer: was barely spoken. Heart disease was mentioned, but only as a reason that someone was permanently disabled. Doctors, who could do so much less than than can today, were venerated far more than they are today.     Henrietta Lacks was a young African American woman who listened to her doctors and didn't question. In that she …
review by . February 18, 2010
As another reviewer noted, I worked with HeLa cells in the late 70s and people in the lab knew at least the donor's name at that time, so when I saw this book appear on the market, I jumped to learn the rest of the story.    That, you'll learn. As noted, some parts were more interesting than others, and the book reads a little faster if you can skim. Life can get really hard when your mother dies young. Cancer treatment is bad enough now. It was brutal then.    I …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Starred Review. Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot's portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people. (Feb.) 
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Books, Cafe Libri, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot


ISBN-10: 1400052173
ISBN-13: 978-1400052172
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: History, Health, Mind & Body, Science
Publisher: Crown
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