Jessica's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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Jul 14, 13

bookshelves: nonfiction, book-club, re-reads
Read in July, 2013, read count: 2

Nearly everyone on my Goodreads friends list had read and given a positive review to this book before my book club selected it, so I knew it was going to be interesting, but I didn't expect it to be as engaging as it turned out to be. While on the surface this is a book about science and medical ethics, it turns out to be even more a book about a family and their struggles to reconcile the good things their mother's cells have done for science with the fact that neither she nor they knew her cells were being taken, and that no profits from the use of her cells have ever come back to the family.

Henrietta Lacks lived in poverty in rural Virginia and died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University during an era when best practices for medical ethics had not been codified, and so a tissue culture scientist at Hopkins didn't think twice about taking a cell sample from a black woman who was not paying for her hospital stay - he was engrossed in a project to try to create the first immortal line of cells and was taking samples from everyone he came in contact with. He had no way of knowing that the cancer growing on her cervix would be the the first cells to thrive in a laboratory - but thrive they did. When her cells kept growing, the scientist, George Gey, started sharing them with every scientist who asked, and amazingly, the cells survived shipment through the mail and long trips in people's pockets and continued to grow in other laboratories. Suddenly, HeLa cells were everywhere, even though other cell lines continued to die out after a few generations.

Henrietta passed away, yet for years - continuing even to the present day - scientists conducted thousands of tests on HeLa cells to understand how cells survive in outer space, in atomic bombs, and when subjected to any number of medical conditions. Her cells led to a multitude of scientific discoveries, and because of the lax regulations when her cells were first taken, it didn't take long for journalists to uncover Henrietta's identity and to start contacting her family - which is how they first learned that Henrietta's cells had outlived her. Her family, living in poverty, was understandably divided between pride at the discoveries that had come from HeLa cells and anger that scientists and corporations were profiting off of their genetic material.

The scientific side of the story is interesting in itself, but Skloot's book succeeds primarily because she lets us get to know Henrietta's children and other family members. Over time, Skloot formed a friendship with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, and Deborah gradually allowed Skloot access to other family members, most of whom were guarded after repeated bad experiences with members of the press. At the heart of this book is the story of Deborah and her relatives, who lived in poverty and were primarily uneducated, yet who wanted desperately to learn more about their mother's legacy and to reach some kind of closure in the whole situation.

I was surprised by how quickly I was drawn into this book, and by how quickly I devoured it. If you're unfamiliar with HeLa cells, you'll learn a lot by reading this book, but even if you know the science, there's a lot to think about just reading about the Lacks family and their struggles to understand what had happened to their mother's cells. Highly recommended.

Note: I wrote this review after my original reading of the book, October 7-14, 2011. I re-read the book in July 2013. I think I'm a little stingier with five-star reviews now than I was on my first read and might have only given it four this time around, but I'll leave everything as it stands. This is a very engaging and informative read and still something I highly recommend.
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10/11/2011 page 137
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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Kirsten (new) - added it

Kirsten Oooo. I bought that book to add to my Non-fiction library. Haven't read it yet.


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