27 October 2012

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Published: 2 February 2010 by Crown Publishing

Pages: 370 (hardcover)

Genre/s: Non-fiction, science, medical

Source: Own library

Check it out: Goodreads ~ Amazon ~ Amazon UK ~ The Book Depository ~ Audible


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?

My Thoughts

I quite enjoy a bit of non-fiction occasionally, but it has to be entertaining.   And honestly, going into this one, I was quite worried that it would be far too science-y for me - I hated science at school because I just wasn't interested.

But with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot has taken a subject and turned it into a far more emotional story than just the tale of how one woman's cells became the building blocks of modern medicine.  The scientific / medical parts are written in a way that are easily understandable, and dotted with interesting, well-presented facts that grabbed my attention, and actually had me wanting to know more.

Alongside the science, there is also a very human side to the story.  From diagnosis, to treatment to Henrietta's early death, Ms Skloot tells the tale with a sympathetic yet straight-forward voice.  As she becomes more and more involved with the story behind HeLa and begins the arduous task of gaining the trust of Henrietta's family in order to find out as much as possible about the mystery lady behind one of the greatest advancements in medicine, I liked her more and more.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is more than a non-fiction book.  It's a moving, and sometimes shocking investigation into the life of Henrietta, her family and the fall-out from the scientific advances made using her cells.  From the radical treatments, lack of information, complete lack of consent, through to the investigation into homes for the disabled in the 1950's, there were many times during this book that I was completely floored that parts of history have been so completely glossed over.

Even if non-fiction isn't your thing, The Immortal Life of Henrietta lacks doesn't feel like non-fiction at all - there's far too much emotion, and it's far too compelling to be considered just another non-fiction book.


  1. I've always wondered what this book was about or if it's any good. I like to read human interest books once in a while and like you mentioned, I passed this up because I am not really keen on science. Thanks for reading it and sharing your thoughts.

    Happy weekend!

  2. Oh wow, you're done reading. I am reading it right now and completely agree with it not being too science-y and it's very touching.

  3. This might be very interested for me, because I recently worked with her cells! :) Thanks for sharing this book and I'm going to check it out.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...