The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot
Published; March 8, 2011
Source: Personal Copy (Book Club Selection)
Summary (from Amazon):
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Thoughts on Content (4.5/5.0): I’ll admit that reading about genetics and science is not my thing. However, personal stories are my thing and, thankfully, this book falls more into the latter category than the former. Don’t get me wrong—there is science (and a bit of law) involved, but Skloot does a good job of writing for the lay reader. Most of the book, however, deals with Henrietta Lacks and her descendants, mostly her daughter Deborah. In that sense, this is much more of a family history than scientific journalism.
Thoughts on Style (4.5/5.0): As I said above, Skloot is quite good at writing for the non-scientific reader. A number of the women in my book club work in the medical or scientific fields and were able to elaborate a bit on this, but really, this former history major had no problem following it.
Skloot also excels in writing about the Lacks family. They are, well, interesting and it would be so easy to write any of them off as just strange characters. Instead, Skloot takes us inside their lives to see their own struggles and experiences that shaped their lives.
My thoughts (4.5/5.0): I’ll be honest, if someone took my mother’s cells and used them to help develop the vaccine and to research cancer, I would be okay with that. I wouldn’t see her cells to be an extension of her soul and I wouldn’t expect any monetary compensation for it.
All that being said, I do understand why the Lacks family had a different view of what happened than I would have. Their story is a heartbreaking one, covering the loss of a mother, the civil rights movement and the journey of a young journalist to find the face behind the cells.
I was not solicited for this review and received no compensation. All opinions are mine, and mine alone.
AFFILIATE LINK: Purchase this book at Amazon.