K's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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's review
Jun 10, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: audiobooks, readablenonfiction, miscellaneousgreatbooks
Recommended to K by: goodreads
Recommended for: Just about anyone

I blew through this fascinating audiobook, practically manufacturing housework to do so that I'd have an excuse to plug myself in (okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration; there was plenty of housework to do without my having to manufacture any). I would recommend this book to just about anyone seeking a great read -- even if you're usually more of a fiction person, this non-fiction book offers plenty of interesting characters and storylines as well as being informative and provocative in the way of non-fiction.

Did you know that much of medical research (and the benefits we derive every day, including many routine vaccines and medications we take for granted) is dependent on a culture of human cells that continue to live and reproduce even after their original owner died in 1951? Well, I didn't. And I wouldn't have thought that this factoid would interest me particularly, not being much of a science person myself. But somehow, Rebecca Skloot was able to make the dynamics surrounding these cells not only comprehensible to me but intriguing (no small feat).

Even more intriguing, though, was the story of the late human being behind these cells, Henrietta Lacks, who never knew that her cells had been taken for research. Henrietta's surviving children, tragically losing their mother at a young age to cervical cancer and raised in a poor and abusive environment, only learned about this later in life and never saw a penny of the proceeds.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" contains several stories. There is the story of Henrietta, a poor young African American woman with incurable cervical cancer, and of her children struggling to grow up without her after her early death. There is the story of the doctor who decided to slice off pieces of her tumor just prior to her death without asking or even informing her, who then discovered that these cancerous cells were immortal. There is the story of the cells, which began to be mass-produced and distributed to researchers for a wide variety of interesting and often ground-breaking experiments. And there is the story of Rebecca Skloot, a journalist who was persistent and dogged in her efforts to win Henrietta's family's reluctant trust (after they had been duped by others attempting to capitalize on Henrietta) so that she could learn and tell their story.

Henrietta's adult children in this book are colorful characters with their own stories who overcame some difficult situations, some more successfully than others. We also meet different doctors and researchers -- while some prove to be profiteers, others are truly dedicated to science for its own sake. The doctor who originally took Henrietta's tumor for research without her knowledge fell into the latter category, which is part of what makes this a three-dimensional book rather than a simplistic polemic. A product of his times, this 1950s doctor was less sensitive to the medical and research ethics which have since received more attention, particularly when it came to a poor African-American woman.

Should you care if someone uses your body tissues for medical research without your consent? Before I began reading this book, my thought was, why the heck would I care? Assuming that these tissues need to be removed in any case, why not use them to do some good for science and for mankind? But Rebecca offers some anecdotes which complicate this question, and the irony running throughout the book is that Henrietta's descendants cannot afford decent medical care, even as the entire medical profession benefits from Henrietta's unwittingly donated cells.

Even if you think you're not a science person, even if you think you're not a non-fiction person, I would recommend checking this book out.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Riv (new) - added it

Riv I read a review of this book not long ago (I think in the Wall Street Journal) and was surprised that I had never heard of this story before. I'm glad to hear that you found it so interesting; I love a good medical science docudrama! Wonder of the OPL will get this one soon...

message 2: by K (new) - rated it 5 stars

K Well, I don't know whether I'd count on the OPL but maybe you can go to Southfield or interlibrary loan it from there. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

message 3: by Ariella (new)

Ariella Interesting read! I heard a podcast about this topic recently and was facinated!

message 4: by K (new) - rated it 5 stars

K If you can get ahold of it, Ariella, I recommend it. Maybe you can use your mother's library card to download it on audio from her public library? Since I discovered that trick, it's opened up whole new vistas of books for me...plus, it makes housework a lot more enticing.

message 5: by Ariella (new)

Ariella So that's how you've been getting all your audiobooks! I was wondering about that!! I guess its worth a shot...

message 6: by K (new) - rated it 5 stars

K Absolutely! It's changed my life.

message 7: by Ariella (new)

Ariella Def worth a shot. I will email her now. Do you just download the books onto the computer or do you then transfer them to an ipod? I am so backwards when it comes to this new technology I dont even know how its supposed tobe done? Are all books made available in audiobooks? (there was another book someone recently reviewed that i would love to get my hands on, but I know that here I would never find it, and I dont want to own it- at least not yet, I just want to read it- and I know it will not be in my local library!)

message 8: by K (new) - rated it 5 stars

K So here's how I do it:

I have my mother-in-law's library card number and password for the library site.

When I tried to check out an audio book from the internet for the first time, they told me I had to download their software first so I did. It was very easy.

Once I had downloaded their software, all I had to do was check out the audiobook using the library card and password, download the audiobook to my computer via the software (this happens automatically when you hit download), and then transfer it to my MP.

It's really easy -- if I can do it, anyone can.

Good luck! I hope it works out as well for you as it did for me!

Felicia Khaya your review, as always, is great! I started listening to this a few days ago. I really like it but it is somewhat depressing!

message 10: by K (new) - rated it 5 stars

K Thanks, Felicia! I've been told before that I have a high threshold for depressing reading, so I may not be the person to go by. But overall I found it interesting, and felt the depressing parts were mitigated by all the other aspects of the story.

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