Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Review)

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot, 2010
369 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2011

Immortal Life has to be one of the most remarkable stories of all time, combining the human pathos of one woman's family with the history of scientific and medical advancement.

In 1951 a beautiful, young woman died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Henrietta Lacks' tissue was taken unbeknownst to her...and used within a cell culture lab. Her cells proved extraordinary—unlike all other cell cultures, they divided endlessly. Nothing like them had been seen before.

 

For 60 years, Henrietta's cells helped develop treatments for everything from polio to cancer. They were sent around the globe, into space, and exploded by nuclear bombs. They made billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies—while all that time, Henrietta's surviving children, who were unaware of their mother's immense contribution, couldn't afford a doctor.

Rebecca Skloot took 10 years to write her book. Thorough, dogged, and wide-eyed in pursuit of her story, Skloot collects reams of research, interviews medical professionals, and breaks through years of resentment on the part of Henrietta's family.

It's a story that delves into race and racism, medical research, medical ethics, and law. Skloot offers shocking stories about African Americans used as medical guinnea pigs, right up through the 1960s. It's also the story of many selfless individuals—the very doctor who took Henrietta's tissue is one—who devoted themselves, without reward, to the advance of cell technology.

Most engaging is the story of Henrietta's survivors, especially her daughter Deborah who lost her mother when she was only one. She fared better than two of her siblings, however, whose stories will stand your hair on end. Skloot befriends Deborah, and the times the two women spend on the road, in hotels, reading through boxes of material, make some of the best parts of the book.

This book is a must read. Let me repeat: A Must-Read. Read and discuss.

Be sure to see our Reading Guide for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

 

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