Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  Title:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  Author:  Rebecca Skloot

  Publisher:  Crown Publishing Group

  ISNB: 9781400052189

 

Synopsis (from BN.com): 

Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, was buried in an unmarked grave sixty years ago. Yet her cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medical research. Known to science as HeLa, the first “immortal” human cells grown in culture are still alive today, and have been bought and sold by the millions. Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta’s family struggles with her legacy.

My thoughts:   First and foremost, go out and get yourself a copy of this book.  You will be glad you did!  I thought that Rebecca Skloot’s first book was absolutely fabulous and beautifully written.   This is the type of book that I never would have even picked up off of the shelf much less read, had a member of my book club not suggested it for one of our reads one month.  I am so glad she did!

As the synopsis says, this book traces the story of cells from 31 year old Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman dying of cervical cancer in Baltimore in the 1950’s.  These cells were taken without her knowledge and have since been used in groundbreaking medical discoveries. 

Once you begin reading this book, you quickly realize that it is about so much more than cells.  This book has so many layers and is really about a myriad of thought-provoking topics from race relations in the 1950’s, informed consent, medical research, medical equality,  education, family struggles, medical ethics, science, human nature, relationships . . . and the list can continue. 

What really struck me in this book is the beautiful balance that Rebecca Skloot brings into the writing.  It could have easily been a book so heavily based on the science of cells and medical technology that it would have left readers such as myself in the dust.  Yes, she talks about the advances in medical science that the HeLa cells made and in fact are still making today.  However, she also speaks at length about the many struggles Henrietta Lack’s family faced being economically disadvantaged and uneducated about what was going on with their mother and these cells.  She speaks about the family members experience through this journey and it is clear that her interest in writing this book was truly to answer the question, “Who was Henrietta Lacks?”

This book is extrememly thought-provoking and truly makes the reader stop to ask some difficult questions along the way.  How can the HeLa cells have been the basis for a multi-million dollar industry, yet Henrietta Lack’s children have little to no access to healthcare becaue of their economic status?   Was what was done to Henrietta Lack’s and her family at Johns Hopkins ethical?  How have medical ethics changed over the years?  How do I feel about tissue and cell research? 

I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Rebecca Skloot at a speaking engagement at Northwestern University recently and thoroughly enjoyed hearing about her writing process and her relationships with members of the Lack’s family. 

This book was a result of 10 years of research and relationship-building by Rebecca Skloot, and it was definitely worth the wait. 

Check out further information about the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.   

And remember,

Books are Life,

Heather

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