Summer Reading Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

An engaging but information book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks delves into a story line of ethical murkiness, physical violation, and a family wrought with grief. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who was treated at Johns Hopkins in 1951 for cervical cancer. During her treatments the doctors took samples of her cancer cells and they become the first “immortal cells” that would live (possibly forever) in a lab. It is Henrietta’s cells (known as HeLa) that have made many of the medical advancements in the last 60 years possible including advances with cancer and the polio vaccine.

Skloot details Henriett’a life, her sickness, and how her cells became noticed and prolific in the medical and scientific community. She also, however, spends a great deal of the book on the family Henrietta left behind, humanizing the HeLa cells. The Lackses did not have the education and economic standing to know about the HeLa cells for almost 25 years after Henrietta died. When they learned about the cells they were not adequately informed about their purpose. The result was decades of anger, frustration, and fear.

This book was very well written. It alternates between the medical community and the Lacks family – demonstrating the two sides of the story in an even and thorough manner. The story does jump around chronologically but each chapter clearly indicates where in time it is set with a timeline at the top. The one criticism is that I would have appreciated a family tree because it was confusing to keep track of so many family members. There is a list at the back of the book, but a tree would have been more effective.

This book is a great background on current issues – from obtaining consent from human subjects to the issue of modifying cells and access to DNA records. I would recommend this book to anyone and I was pleasantly surprised that despite the grave issues contained in the story, that it was not a depressing read.

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