Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

When you hardly blog all year it becomes really hard to start back up again. There have been many days where I have stared at a blank screen trying to decide how to get started again. The thing is I have read a lot of great books and I really want to talk about them, so now I am determined to get back in the swing of things. I am a bit out of practice, so let's see what happens!

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 atom bomb’s effects; 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.

I was watching a television talk show sometime in the last couple months and whoever it was interviewed Rebecca Skloot. I was listening to her talk and thought that her book sounded really interesting because I had no idea what it was about. I haven't taken biology or chemistry since high school, but I knew that we never learned about Henrietta Lacks. I had never heard of her before and had no idea that she was such a major part of science. I thought the book would work for the Women Unbound reading challenge, so I decided to see if the library had a copy. It came in for me just a couple days ago and since it was a high-demand book, and I was really curious about it, I read it right away.

First up, I want to reiterate that I have not taken science in several years. It's not that I don't like science, but I went a different route in university. I was very happy to find that even though my cell knowledge was a bit rusty, I found that I was able to follow along with the book rather well. There were only a couple times where I read something and had to stop to try and picture it in my mind, so even if science is not your normal comfort zone this book should work really well for you. If you are big into science, I am not sure what you would expect. It is obvious that Skloot was trying to aim for a wider audience, so you might find the book a bit 'dumbed down'.

I actually found this book really fascinating. Sometimes non-fiction books don't have a happy medium between the wider scoop of the book and the human interest parts. I didn't really find that with this book. I was interested in learning more about the science and how so many people have benefited from a black woman that died in 1951, but I was also really interested in who Henrietta was as a person and what her family is like now. Skloot talks about both in an engaging manner. You can tell that this is a woman that loves the topic that she is researching. I am not sure if that was the case when she started out, but she got to know Henrietta's family and I think that changed things for her.

I included the entire synopsis from the book because I wanted to make sure that the point of this book was brought across. I am sure that many people will look at the title of this book and wonder 'Who is Henrietta Lacks". That's the point of the book, though, to bring recognition to a woman that died not even knowing she was going to live on in science. Her cells are scattered around the world and with the right treatment can easily live on forever. They have been used in cancer research, as that is what Henrietta had herself, but they have also been to space, blown up in a nuclear bomb, and used as a research tool for many life-threatening illnesses. They were the first cells to flourish in a lab and continue to increase at an over-whelming rate when allowed.

Then, the controversy comes in. Henrietta did not sign any sort of forms allowing her cells to be harvested and used for science. Her husband agreed to a partial autopsy, but did not know that it was really a way for the doctors to get more samples from his wife. They were limited in their education and the doctors took advantage of that to get what they wanted. This continued on with Henrietta's children. They were brought in to give blood samples, but were not made aware of what was going on. The sad thing is that doctors have made millions off Henrietta's cells, but her descendants in many cases cannot even afford health insurance. So, I am left not sure what to think about the circumstances. I think it is wonderful that HeLa has been used to save many lives, but that doesn't mean that I don't think it was handled badly. Was it good that the doctors just took without asking because she was just one woman and she has saved many? My first instinct is to say yes, but that doesn't mean that if asked and explained Henrietta wouldn't have agreed and her family could have at least been able to receive free health care. I think I need to think about it a bit more.

Overall this was a really interesting book! It wasn't perfect. Sometimes I found things a bit too detailed than necessary and sometimes I think the focus of the book was lost, but I still really enjoyed it and am glad that I now know who Henrietta Lacks is and what she has done for science.


  1. First of all, welcome back! Great to see a new post from you. I definitely am still following.

    Secondly, I kept seeing this book but for some reason skipped the reviews as the title didn't make it sound like my thing. I had no idea it was non-fiction! After reading your review I am putting this high on the wish list.

  2. Yay for you blogging again!!

    I have heard nothing but high praise for this book, and I think I'd find it really good reading. I was going to get it for my brother for his birthday (he's going to medical school this fall), but decided on a different book instead. Darn!

  3. Glad to see you're back! What a great review. I have this on my shelves but haven't read it yet. I think the greatest thing that will come out of people reading this book is the discussion the book will start on medical ethics.

  4. Oh Kelly, this was an awesome review! This is the first I'd heard of this book, but I am definitely buying it for my husband now! (And of course, then borrowing it from him.)

  5. It's great to see you back with a new review. I recently read another review of this book and added it to my TBR. I am not into science at all but is still sounds intriguing to me.

  6. Thanks for this review. Have seen quite a few on this book and all have been intriguing.

  7. This definitely sounds interesting, I will have to get a copy. I hadn't heard of it before which makes me feel I must be living in some black hole lately.

  8. I felt the same way about this book. I hadn't taken science in a really long time, but I didn't find it too hard to read. I loved when she described a cell like an egg -- that made total sense to me.

  9. Hi Kailana! I hear ya - I'm also trying to start blogging again and it's hard going! I'm glad you blogged about this particular book though, it sounds fascinating, I can't wait to get it.

  10. The story's most incredible because of the chance find that the researcher came across in the protagonist's cells. Her cells, it turns out, were taken from her without her consent or knowledge, and her kin only found out when the researchers needed more of them, and so consulted them about submitting to cell samplings. No one else in her family had these immortal cells that Lacks had, which went on to accomplish some of the most important research and findings in medical history (polio vaccine, important AIDS work, etc.).


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