Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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Aug 08, 13

bookshelves: biography-autobiography-memoir, science, public-health, american-history, brain-candy
Read from November 24 to 30, 2010

Updated - 8/8/13 - see article link at botom

On October 4, 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a thirty-one-year old black woman, died after a gruesome battle with a rapidly metastasizing cancer. During her treatment, the doctors at Johns Hopkins took some cells from her failing body and used them for research. This was not an unusual thing to have done in 1951. But the cells that came from Ms. Lacks’ body were unusual. They had qualities that made them uniquely valuable as research tools. Labeled “HeLa”, Henrietta’s cells were reproduced by the billions over the following sixty years and have been instrumental in experiments across a wide range of biological science. Today, HeLa cells are sold by the vial at impressive prices. Yet, Ms. Lacks’ family has seen not a penny of compensation from the work that has been made possible by their relative’s unique cells.

Rebecca Skloot, a science writer with articles published in many major outlets, spent years looking into the genesis of these cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells four stories. First is the tale of HeLa cells, and the value they have been to science; second is the life of, arguably, the most important cell “donor” in history, and of her family; third is a look at the ethics of cell “donation” and the commercial and legal significance of rights involved; and fourth is the Visible Woman look at Skloot’s pursuit of the tales. Each story is significant.

The contribution of HeLa cells has been huge and it is important to know how these cells came to be so widely used, and what are the characteristics that make them so valuable. Skloot goes into a reasonable level of detail for those of us who do not make our living in a lab coat. She adds information on how cell cultures can become contaminated, and how that impacts completed research. She also offers a description of telomeres, strings of DNA at the end of chromosomes critical to longevity, and key to the immortality of HeLa cells. Fascinating stuff.

Skloot constructs a biography of Henrietta, and patches together a portrait of the life of her family, from her ancestors to her children, siblings and other relations. It is with a source of pride, among other emotions, that her family regards Henrietta’s impact on the world. Skloot delves into these feelings, and the experiences the Lacks family members have had over the decades with people trying to write about Henrietta, and people trying to exploit their interest in Henrietta for dark purposes.

The author had to overcome considerable family resistance before she was able to get them to meet with and ultimately open up to her. She takes us through her process, showing who she talked with, when, and the result of those conversations, what institutions she contacted re locating and gaining access to information about Henrietta and some other family members. Most interesting, and at times frustrating, is her story of how she gained the trust of some, if not all, of the Lacks family. This is like presenting a how-to of her research process, a blow-by-blow description of the way research is done in the real world, and it is very enlightening.

The Immortal Tale of Henrietta Lacks has received considerable acclaim. It is all well-deserved. The book is an eye-opening window into a piece of our history that is mostly unknown. It presents science in a very manageable way and gives us plenty to think about the next time we have a blood test or any other medical procedure. This book may not be as immortal as Henrietta’s cells, but it will stay with you for a very long time.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

8/8/13 - NY Times article - A Family Consents to a Medical Gift, 62 Years Later

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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Nancy (last edited Dec 05, 2010 07:40AM) (new) - added it

Nancy I remember listening to her story on NPR. Science books and reviews of them often make my eyes glaze over, but once again your thoughtful review has made me add another book to my shelf. I liked how you showed there are humane aspects to scientific research as well.


message 2: by Chris (new)

Chris Thank you, Will, for constructing such a thoughtful review of such a significant book.


Will Byrnes Thanks, Nancy and Chris. It took a bit of persuading to get me to read this. I do like reading about science, but was not all that enthusiastic about Henrietta and put it off for quite a while. The fact that it received such widespread acclaim made a difference, and my sweetie kept telling me that I really should read it.

Skloot did a pretty good job of putting human faces on a crucial aspect of contemporary science. In a way, we have little real choice about the use of our cells for research. It's like software disclaimers. If you want to use pretty much any piece of software you did not write yourself you have to agree to yield up all possible legal rights. Of course you retain the freedom not to use the software. In the same way you retain the right, I suppose, not to get the results of your medical tests, leaving you free to pass on finding out whether that cute little biopsy chunk has nasties nibbling away at your lifespan.


Kaethe Excellent review, Will.


Will Byrnes Thanks, Kaethe, and for the like.


Kaethe I tend not to write very involved reviews, but I dearly love when other people do. You'll be seeing more, I'm sure.


message 7: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Will wrote: ". In a way, we have little real choice about the use of our cells for research. ..."

Seems a bit unfair, doesn't it? OTOH, what if people refused to have their cells used, and their cells could have provided a breakthrough? It's a tough issue.

Interesting, in-depth review as usual. :)


message 8: by Cheyenne (new)

Cheyenne I saw a snippet for this article and meant to go back and read it, but forgot. Thanks for posting it here. I didn't know anything about this until I saw an old episode of Law and Order that featured a similar premise. I was surprised to learn later that it was actually a true case when I saw the summary for this book. It's fascinating story.


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