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 interested medical researchers enough to take samples of her cancer cells for study. Whatever caused her cancer cells to grow so fiercely within her body seemed to continue its effect outside; Henrietta's cells thrived in culture and became the first successfully-grown, widely-used cell line in biomedical research. Her cells, known to the scientific and medical community as HeLa, are still in use today. But Henrietta was a poor, barely-educated black woman in the mid-twentieth century, being treated in the public wards of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and she knew nothing of her contribution to the advancement of science. Her tissues were taken without her knowledge or consent. Granted, that was more or less the norm in those days, but her family had no knowledge of it at the time, either, or for years afterward - and when they did learn of it, its effects were devastating.
In order to tell the more personal part of the story, Skloot had to get to know the Lacks family. Her complicated relationship with them makes her a character in her own book, but never the character; even more than Henrietta herself, this story centers on her daughter Deborah, who was just a small child when her mother died. Deborah and the rest of the family don't fully understand what the continued existence of Henrietta's cells means - all they really grasp is that, somehow, part of her is still alive, and that people are profiting from that in various ways
Skloot successfully mixes layperson-friendly scientific discussion, considerations of medical and scientific ethics, and a genuine human-interest story into an approachable, fast-paced, and fascinating read. It's what narrative nonfiction does best - grab and hold a reader's interest in something she really didn't expect would interest her all that much. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a memorable and important story - it deserved to be told, and deserves to be known.
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 … more
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 … more
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 … more