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

I’m on a summer break, so I’m recycling some posts from the past. This book review is timely now: the Lacks family has finally been given more say into research involving the cells of Henrietta Lacks.


coverThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot
ISBN: 978-1-4000-5218-9
Broadway Paperbacks, 2011

You’ve never heard of Henrietta Lacks? I’m not surprised. But you should get to know her, because she has affected your life, the lives of everyone around you, and the lives of most people, in the world.

Incredible, you say. Indeed. And yet, it’s true.

In the late 1940s, scientists struggled to grow human cells in laboratory conditions so they could use those cells to create new medical treatments and prescription drugs. No matter what cells they used or what growing cultures they tried, the cells always died—until Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of abdominal pain. When doctors removed a piece of the cancerous tumour growing on her cervix, those cells grew. And grew. And grew. And are still growing more than 60 years later. They have been to space, blown up, and cloned. If you weighed all her cells ever grown, they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons. Her cells helped to create the polio vaccine and new cancer treatments. They helped to develop in vitro fertilization and gene mapping.

The problem was, and is, the cells were taken without informed consent, and her family didn’t know about all this until much later. Henrietta Lacks was poor and black in Baltimore in the early 1950s. Laws at the time did little to protect the rights of individuals, especially not poor black women with terminal cancer.

Rebecca Skloot maintains the perfect balance between compassion and impartiality when unfolding this astonishing story of science, family relationships, racism, the health care system, and faith. Over many years, she conducted admirably in-depth research to draw out the details of the science and the sequence of events.

We have Henrietta Lacks to thank for two generations of children without polio. Will Henrietta’s cells lead to the elusive cure for cancer for that person you love? What about your cells and tissues? Do you know what happened to that appendix they took out? Where do we draw the line between the rights of scientific study and your right to protect your cells? And, importantly, why can’t the family of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who profoundly affected modern medicine, afford health care?

Everyone should read this book. It’s about Henrietta Lacks, but it’s also about you, me, all of us.

“Under the microscope, cells don’t have a color . . . They all look the same . . .”


A portion of the proceeds from this book go to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

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About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on August 14, 2013, in Book reviews, Books for the beach, Books I bought, Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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