Hali Sowle's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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May 01, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: biology, non-fiction, science, health, medical, history
Read in March, 2012

I heard about HELA cells back in AP Biology and then again in college and how they had been used to create the polio vaccine and they were the first strain of "immortal cells". I learned what made the cells "immortal" and how different they were from other cancer cells, how many uses there were for HELA cells and how they were cultivated. What I didn't learn was anything about the woman from whom the cells were harvested or what happened to her. I didn't know that she suffered from Syphillis and Gonorrhea, that she was married to her first cousin and she had 4 children, one of which was institutionalized from a young age. This book artfully combines the science of the HELA cells and their cultivation, propagation and "exploitation" with the story of Henrietta Lacks and her children as told by Skloot with the help of Henrietta's daughter Deborah. It moves from Henrietta's young life growing up in a tobacco hamlet in Virginia to her move with her husband, Sonny and children to Baltimore where she ultimately died at age 30 from the ravages of a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, the tumor of which the original HELA cells were harvested. It continues after her death with the lives of her children in Baltimore and the story of the scientists and the cells they work with, the cells that are both a blessing and a curse.

The book was very interesting it is rare you get to hear the story behind the science and learn about the ordinary as well as the extraordinary people behind the forces that transform our world. As powerful as the first two parts of the book were; the third part of the book, the most recent part of the story of the Lackses and HELA falls short. It was almost as if Skoot couldn't wait to finish the book and her prose became stilted and stiff and the ending was rushed. Still, it was a fascinating read throughout most of it.
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