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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The first of my promised book reviews (non-fiction). One down, five to go.

Henrietta Lacks helped develop medical advances we take for granted every day. She contributed to common vaccines, cancer research, and the educations of cellular biologists the world over. Henrietta Lacks changed the world unknowingly.

Diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early 1950’s, Henrietta was a patient at Johns Hopkins. Her doctor, on a quest to develop a sustainable cell line, took a sample of her cancerous cells without her knowledge. Against all odds, he was successful in creating a cell line. Unfortunately, the odds were also against Henrietta. The same miraculous reproductive ability of her cancer cells that made her doctor’s experiment a success allowed her cancer to destroy her body. Henrietta the woman died a painful death in 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Henrietta the cell culture was renamed HeLa and lives on to this day.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot explored the history of the HeLa cell line, from its contributions to modern medicine to the genealogy of Henrietta herself. Through years of research, patience, and perseverance, Skloot was able to ingratiate herself with the Lacks family. The Immortal Life tells the story of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her struggle accepting her mother’s role in science.

While Skloot claims to explore Henrietta’s history, her family’s legacy, and her contributions to science, the final product is also a story about writing a story. Information about Henrietta is scarce; the reader learns little about who Henrietta was personally, although her daughter is well-developed. Skloots tenuous relationship with Deborah and attempts to develop relationships with other family members is interspersed with HeLa’s contributions to science. Cell cultures, vaccine developments, informed consent, and DNA all feature in HeLa’s impressive curriculum vitae.

An engrossing read, well-researched and informational, Skloot’s first book is worthwhile. It exposes injustices; shines a much-needed light on the failings of healthcare, and Skloots quest provided the Lacks’ with the answers to questions they could not form on their own. If you want the story of the mother of HeLa, however, there is little to be found in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. While her cells are intimately known to scientists around the world and her family is exposed to armchair scientists, Henrietta herself remains largely a mystery.

3.5 of 5 stars

Coming soon… Stiff: The Curious Life Of Human Cadavers