Lauren 's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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's review
Dec 31, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: science, culture, audiobooks, medicine
Read from October 06 to 13, 2010

Compelling and fascinating pageturner that weaves the unique and groundbreaking story behind the HeLa cells that have revolutionized medical science in the last century. Skloot puts a name, a face, and a rich family history around the cells of Henrietta Lacks, who the "immortal" cells were essentially stolen from in the 1950s after she started treatment for severe cervical cancer. Medical records, archival research, and oral history paint a vivid picture of the Lacks' family's struggles in 1950s Baltimore. Skloot tells the story first hand, as she meets the surviving members of the Lacks family, and becomes very close to Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah.

The book details very painful events (specifically Henrietta's abysmal "care" in the hospital after her tumors were discovered, and the treatment of Henrietta's other daughter, Elsie, in the Home for the Negro Insane) in the Lacks' family history. Skloot travels to southern Virginia where Henrietta grew up, and where she is now buried.

The personal side of the book is so captivating, and the way Skloot interweaves this story in with the scientific information is near seamless. It's very well-done and quite accessible for a non-scientific audience. I learned a lot about genetics and about the research that the famous HeLa cells have engendered. I particularly enjoyed the portion of the book when the researcher spent the day with Skloot and Deborah Lacks, explaining the true breakthroughs from the HeLa cell line. There is soome criticism (here on GoodReads as well) that the book spent too much time with the Lacks' descendants, but I would argue that this is a very important part of the book - noting that while the Jim Crow laws are not in place, and the legal system is more aware of scientific research and patient "rights", there have not been socioeconomic strides for science education and alleviation of poverty in these inner-city areas. Skloot provided a very important context to the story of HeLa by setting the scene with Deborah, Zecharia, Lawrence, and the "cousins" in rural Virginia.

On a local note, it was very interesting to learn the details about the Lacks family and their history in the Baltimore region. I have lived near Baltimore (and even worked and took classes at the institution that plays a large - and unfortunate - role in this book) for years and did not know some of the things that were discussed. Even closer to home, I was moved, and saddened to learn about the tragedies that happened at the Crownsville hospital, which is near my parents' home, and where I went to high school. I didn't realize the full history of the institution.

Very moving story, and it is highly recommended.
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Reading Progress

10/07/2010 page 90
24.0% "What an amazing story - can't wait to hear more..."
10/10/2010 page 250
68.0% "Fascinating story - and very accessible. Skloot does a nice job explaining some basics of genetics." 1 comment

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