Book Review

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot

Rating: 5 / 5

I have had THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot on my shelf for a while after receiving a few recommendations. It was on my Around the Year in 52 Books reading challenge TBR for 2019 for the STEM related book prompt, but a friend recently read and praised the book, not knowing that I had plans to read it, so I bumped it up to the top of my TBR!

Henrietta Lacks was a poor southern African-American woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In the process of her treatment at John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, samples of her cancer cells were taken without her consent. To everyone’s surprise, the cells they harvested thrived and grew.

Known as HeLa, these cells became the basis of major medical research and great leaps forward in medical science. HeLa cells were instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine and they play a part in research even today. The cells have gone to space and been blown up atom bombs. The medical community has developed these ‘immortal’ human cells into a multi-million dollar industry, but Henrietta’s surviving family was left in poverty and in the dark about the importance of their mother’s cells.

Henrietta Lacks has always been in the shadows, her name often not even known by the researchers using her cells. Author Rebecca Skloot set out to learn Henrietta’s history and tell her story. She completed extensive research and slowly won over Henrietta’s family to create a cohesive narrative of Henrietta’s life, including the ongoing life of her ‘immortal’ cells. She reveals the ways in which the medical community exploited Henrietta’s cells and her family to collect samples for ongoing research and delves into the legal complexities of informed consent and ownership over one’s own cells.

This book was fascinating from the very beginning and the story of Henrietta Lacks is a compelling read. There is a lot of science in this book, but Rebecca Skloot writes it in a way that is entirely approachable. The book is also heavily a human interest story as Skloot clearly came to really care about Henrietta and her family. The Lacks family has no shortage of complications from health concerns, a lack of health insurance and legal concerns.

I completed much of this book via audiobook and it is very well done. Regardless of the format, I highly recommend THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS as a very intriguing, very approachable narrative about events that impact all of our lives and our healthcare!

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