8 Books to Read If You Enjoyed 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

Posted by Cybil on April 19, 2017

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One of the most popular nonfiction books of the past decade is premiering on HBO this weekend. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has more than 380,000 ratings on Goodreads (with an average of 4.03 stars), and spent 75 weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list.

The book is the story of Henrietta Lacks and her contributions to medicine that saved millions of lives. The young African American woman died in 1951 from cervical cancer. After her death, her cells became the first to be cultured and grown in a laboratory—making medical history. Since then, Lacks' cells have been used in several hundred major medical advances that made medical companies billions of dollars.

The book is also about her family's fight for justice. They were unaware that their mother had unwittingly become a medical pioneer. It was all done without their consent and without any compensation.

This weekend, this story first told in science writer Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book is airing on HBO, starring Oprah Winfrey.

For those interested in her story, here are some additional books you may enjoy:


The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
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When Breath Becomes Air
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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
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Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them
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And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
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Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
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The Gene: An Intimate History
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Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
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Check out more recent blogs:
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What David Grann Thinks of 'The Lost City of Z' Movie
7 Great Books Hitting the Shelves This Week

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Yaaresse (new)

Yaaresse Man, I detested that book. It was a fascinating story, but Skloot managed to make it all about her, the reporter who couldn't focus on the point of the story. I'm hoping the movie strips out a lot of that and puts the focus back on Henrietta Lacks.

Being Mortal and The Gene are both fascinating reads.

Some other non-fics loosely in this vein are Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America,/i> and Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v Bell.


message 2: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America....

Never heard of that book, and I am going to look it up after I type out this comment. But the title sounds terrifying!


message 3: by Kathy (new)

Kathy I'm not at all sure that we ever really know what the medical establishment may do with our blood or our cell cultures. I come to this conclusion when I remember when I got a letter in the mail that my daughter might have high cholesterol and that she was part of a study. I never gave my consent and did not have previous knowledge of this. I believe she was 8 or 9 years old. I was outraged to say the least. That was 25 years ago.


message 4: by Iluzija (new)

Iluzija O. Istini I understand the injustice of it when the money become an issue, but on the basic level, if only one person is saved by the medicine developed on some samples that were taken unknowingly from me, it would have been worth it. I wouldn't be outraged. I would be proud. Same goes for my parents or children. As long as the treatment isn't harming the donor, why not?
On the other hand, I also believe that post mortem organ donation should be mandatory, which is not something many people would agree with me on. But the way I see it... You're dead, you don't need it. Save the living.

The book, for me, was mediocre. It was a bit too much about the writer's trip to get the information, which is something I didn't really care about.


message 5: by AlTonya (new)

AlTonya I enjoyed the book very much- just hope the HBO film will do it justice...


message 6: by Yaaresse (new)

Yaaresse Kathy wrote: "I'm not at all sure that we ever really know what the medical establishment may do with our blood or our cell cultures. I come to this conclusion when I remember when I got a letter in the mail tha..."

I agree. Once the material leaves your body, we don't know what happens to it. The patient has a right to the test results for ordered tests, but not to the biological material once it has left their body. Same goes with all those DNA samples that genealogy sites (and seems like everyone else) keeps pushing people to take under guise of "discover your past!" Once you spit in that tube, sure, they'll send you some data, but they really just want to amass a huge database of genetic information to sell to insurance and drug companies.

Of course, like you suggest, it's probably already happened. Who hasn't had a blood test, a throat culture, etc.? What sort of annoyed me about the Henrietta Lacks story is that Skloot framed it as "this family was stolen from, exploited, because they were poor, black, and powerless." The reality is that if Henrietta Lacks had been the epitome of an affluent, white, socially connected woman, her cells STILL would have been harvested and she still would have gotten nothing.

Newsweek ran an article about privacy and medical testing. It's a couple of years old, but still provides food for thought: http://www.newsweek.com/2014/08/01/wh...


message 7: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Hayward Pérez I loved When Breath Becomes Air. Added The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to "to read".


message 8: by Joanna (new)

Joanna I would add "Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink to this list. Healthcare, legal implications, and high drama.


message 9: by Jaclyn (new)

Jaclyn I think I shall read Being Mortal and the Checklist Manifesto because I read several of Atwul Gawenda's medical books already.


message 10: by Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* (last edited Apr 20, 2017 12:26PM) (new)

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Kathy wrote: "I'm not at all sure that we ever really know what the medical establishment may do with our blood or our cell cultures. I come to this conclusion when I remember when I got a letter in the mail tha..."

What's scary is the incompetence too. They may have just written you the wrong information for the wrong person. As an example, when I was pregnant, the health dept sent me a letter saying I was male on my papsmear record. Doctors called my aunt about a lump they found on my mother's breast (because they went in together and have the same last names), and they got confused thinking it was my aunts. Another doctor requested my medical records, and the clinic sent my doctor my mother's full history instead because she had been a patient once. There's no telling where all our records and information are sent, they can't keep it straight.


message 11: by Kathy (last edited Apr 20, 2017 03:18PM) (new)

Kathy No, I asked my daughter's pediatrician about it and he sent it.


message 12: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey It's gratifying to see Medical Apartheid being featured here. Doesn't quite make up for the world yet again putting the spotlight on a white person making money off of the facts of the lives of black people, but it's a start.


message 13: by Yaaresse (new)

Yaaresse Ana wrote: "I'm not a fan of having Ms. Winfrey's picture prominent on the cover of the book. Ms. Winfrey's photo makes the book about the movie, and in turn makes it about her performance. That's not what's i..."

I'm not a fan of that regardless of the book. A lot of interesting cover art has been shoved off into oblivion to make room for stars' faces, which say nothing about the story and add nothing to the reading of it.


message 14: by Papaphilly (new)

Papaphilly Yaaresse wrote: "Ana wrote: "I'm not a fan of having Ms. Winfrey's picture prominent on the cover of the book. Ms. Winfrey's photo makes the book about the movie, and in turn makes it about her performance. That's ..."

Ana wrote: "I'm not a fan of that regardless of the book. A lot of interesting cover art has been shoved off into oblivion to make room for stars' faces, which say nothing about the story and add nothing to the reading of it..."

While I certainty understand your problems with the new cover choice, I am going to disagree with both of you. I give you both of your arguments because I do not think they are wrong. I see this a bit differently. More attention will be focused on the book because of Oprah Winfrey. More people will be introduced to Henrietta Lacks than would have ever otherwise no matter how compelling the story. Yes, Oprah is probably being self-serving, but at the same time, many will read the book that would have never heard of it in the first place.


message 15: by Mercedes (new)

Mercedes Yaaresse wrote: "Man, I detested that book. It was a fascinating story, but Skloot managed to make it all about her, the reporter who couldn't focus on the point of the story. I'm hoping the movie strips out a lot ..."

I feel as you do. At one point the fascinating story lost its thread and it appeared as though the narrative was picked up by a different writer.


message 16: by Kylie (new)

Kylie Simpson Yaaresse wrote: "Ana wrote: "I'm not a fan of having Ms. Winfrey's picture prominent on the cover of the book. Ms. Winfrey's photo makes the book about the movie, and in turn makes it about her performance. That's ..."

Yes, but sadly there are a great number of people who will only pick up a book like this once it has become a movie, and the only way to bring that to their attention is to put the film poster on the cover. Writing "now a major feature film" just isn't enough.


message 17: by Autumn (new)

Autumn And the Band Played On is a terrific book, and more people should read it. It's incredibly dense, but beautifully written, and so important to our history. Randy Shilts pulls no punches; he calls out everyone who had the chance to stop the spread of AIDS but didn't, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, whether it be the Reagan administration, bathhouse owners, the blood banks, or the gay community. It also sheds light on the politics and technicalities of the medical world, and how much is really going on behind the scenes.


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