The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells--taken without her knowledge in 1951--became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance. A riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.
The first time I heard of Henrietta Lacks was in seventh grade, during our genetics unit. "Her cells were taken by doctors and used for research," the teacher told us. "They're behind almost all of the medical advances made in the last fifty years. The cells never died, which is why scientists have been able to use them for so much research. Now open your textbooks to page two-fifteen."
Another science teacher recommended this book to learn more about Henrietta and the HeLa cells . Four years later, I've finally read it. I wish I'd read it sooner.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is all at once a family saga, a history of medical science, and a record of the role race has played in medicine. The HeLa cells launched a medical revolution - with questionable ethics behind it.One of my pet peeves with nonfiction books is dry, boring narration; if I wanted to read a textbook, I would've bought one.The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in the words of the Washington Post, "reads like a novel." Descriptions of 1950s science labs were vivid, and even the long-dead characters felt alive on the pages. Immortal Life isn't a dull dissertation on medical history and ethics, it's a story - and a really good one at that.
Quite a lot of research and brain power goes into writing a nonfiction book, of course, but some authors write like they're looking down their nose at the reader - my second nonfiction pet peeve. There's a lot of science involved with Henrietta's legacy, and let's face it, we don't all know what somatic cell fusion is. Skloot explains the medical terminology simply and without condescension. The scientific revelations that HeLa caused were fascinating to read about, but the part I most enjoyed was the story of Henrietta's family.
Skloot went to great lengths to interview the Lackses and to learn about Henrietta and their experiences concerning HeLa. She pays them the respect Henrietta herself was denied for so many years.Their quotes are edited only for length and clarity, meaning that the dialects they speak in are intact. Although several members of the Lacks family never finished high school, and some of them were involved with drugs and crime, Skloot never portrays them as uneducated or as "bad people." Instead, Skloot writes about them fondly.
Learning that Henrietta's cells were still alive - twenty years after the HeLa line was first grown in culture - had a tremendous impact on the Lacks family, especially Henrietta's daughter, Deborah. Since finding out that Henrietta's cells had been taken, grown, and experimented on without her of her relatives' knowledge, the Lacks family has been asking for someone "to honor [Henrietta] and make right with the family." Skloot has done exactly that.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.