Sunil's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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Jan 07, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: own, 2011, favorites
Read in January, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on pretty much every Top Ten Books of 2010 list. It is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman in the fifties who had cervical cancer. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took her cells without asking, and those cells, dubbed HeLa, never died. And they single-handedly (single-cellularly?) changed the face of science and medicine as we know it. This is not hyperbole, and Skloot makes it clear through the many, many examples of research in which HeLa cells were instrumental. Vaccines, new therapies, new understanding of cancer itself, new insights into DNA, and so on. Without these cells—which I have worked with myself—I cannot imagine where we would be today.

While Skloot makes sure we understand the importance of the cells, her focus is on Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom those cells were taken. Yes, taken. These cells were taken from her, they were grown, they were sold, and she and her family received nothing. It is one hell of an irony that Henrietta's cells revolutionized modern medicine, but her children can't afford health insurance. But this is not an angry, condemning book. Skloot—a science writer who explains the science and scientific discoveries with ease—is more interested in the human element. Who was Henrietta? Where did she grow up? Who knew her? What do her children know about her? Well, it took them a couple decades, but they did find out that the cells of their mother were still floating around all over the world, and they weren't too pleased.

The book is divided into three sections: Birth, which mainly concerns the life of Henrietta Lacks; Death, which mainly concerns the scientific and medical revolution her cells caused; and Immortality, which continues that thread and introduces bioethics into the mix but mainly focuses on Skloot's interactions with the Lacks family as she does research for the book. To my surprise, despite my desire to know more about Henrietta—the reason I read the book—and my fascination with all the science, my favorite part of the book, the part when I was most engaged, was the last hundred pages, as Skloot forms a relationship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, and, together, they find out what they can about her mother. Perhaps because this is when Skloot is telling a very personal story, it feels so much more real and intimate. Skloot has a real knack for storytelling, however, and she's given very good material by, you know, the facts. So much of what she's describing is probably public knowledge but to someone who's unfamiliar with all the details, man, are you in for some fucking surprises.

It's a book that touches on faith, science, racism, bioethics, life, death, medicine, family, and many other things in an incredibly readable, well-researched fashion. It's a story that needed to be told, and it's a marvelous accomplishment.
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