Monday, February 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Summary: 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 effects of the atom bomb; 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?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
Summary from book, cover photo from

My Review: Chances are you have heard of Hela cells. They make regular appearances in articles and on news channels as scientists use them in research to discover how human cells react to various toxins and come up with new medications and vaccinations from studying them. But not much has been said about where these cells originated from. This book takes us behind the scenes of Hela cells back to the woman whose body they were cut from more than fifty years ago - Henrietta Lacks.

This book is more than a scientific study on Hela cells. It's a touching story of the Lacks family - a mother who died of cancer too early leaving her young children and husband behind. It's about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose body passed on but whose cells not only still live but continue to reproduce at astonishing rates.

This book is perfectly laid out to create a beautiful, yet educational story. It contains some interesting information on chromosome mapping, cell reproduction, and cell research in general. The information is provided mostly in layman’s terms making it easy to understand and read. At the same time it brings light onto the woman who was Henrietta Lacks from her childhood to beyond her death with a detailed look inside the lives of her children. The author has done an amazing job of reporting as a neutral party (for the most part) and yet humanizing the Lackes. There were a few parts toward the middle that felt a bit over dramatized. Yet there is no doubt that Henrietta's children suffered greatly, especially her daughter, Deborah. Their torment is adequately portrayed.

This book will leave the reader puzzled with feelings on the equity of tissue ownership. Parts produce outrage toward the abuse of power by the medical profession, Yet where would we be without the medical advancements led to by Hela? What a miraculous legacy Henrietta left behind. This would certainly make for an excellent book club discussion with some warmer moments.

My Rating: 4 Stars

To Sum it Up: So much more than a scientific article yet so much more than a memoir, this is a book that begs to be read.


MindySue said...

This book sounds amazing! Great review!

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

Another one that I'm eager to read, but can't seem to wade thru all the ones I have before it.

Tribute Books said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tribute Books said...

Deborah is someone who leaves an impression on you. You feel so much for her suffering and that of her mother. She doesn't know who to trust or where to turn for help. It is such an outrage that the Lacks family does not even have health insurance after all Henrietta's cells did for the world of medical science.

Lucy said...

I recently finished reading this book. Words fail me to describe my feelings. Nothing I have read in the past several years more deserves to be made into a film - not a made for TV documentary, but the best that Hollywood can do. However, could this possibly be done without further exploiting the Lacks family? I think, possibly, if such a film is made, a significant portion of the receipts should go to the family, as a way of repaying them for what is so long overdue. Yes, yes. I understand the medical ethics, both past and present, but they don't. Not in their spirits, and in their innate knowledge of right and wrong.

Sweet Em said...

Orit - I listened to a (was it Fresh Aire?) interview with the author and I think if she was involved with a movie it would not be exploitive. The author was impressive and thoughtful.


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