Nonfiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by: Rebecca Skloot

 

I just read this book – I know it’s been a big hit for the last two years and I really like science books, but I was a bit wary of reading this book. Not for any particular reason, I suppose, just that it seemed more about people than science and I was worried that it would be inaccurate scientifically. Which bugs me. Also, I had seen the BBC film documentary mentioned in this book as part of my cancer seminar my freshman year and so was familiar with the story and the ethical questions entailed. Anyway, on the recommendation of one of the Ph.d’s at my work I picked it up and finally read it.

This book is, at its core, about Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent and became the first human cells that lived outside of the human body. They are known as HeLa cells and continue to be one of the most important tools scientist have for understanding the human body and disease. Her family, however, didn’t know of these cells’ existence until decades after they had been cultured and, at the time this book was released, still lived in poverty.

I found it a really quick read, but I didn’t struggle with understanding the science parts – which were blessedly accurate as far as I could tell. The author didn’t try to get too detailed or seemed like she was showing off her understanding of science. Rather, she tried to present a clear understanding of what was necessary to understand how important HeLa cells are to science and why. (Also, it’s not essential to the story that one has a perfect or even very good understanding of the science, so don’t be scared by it if you haven’t read it!)

I understand why the critics are raving about this book. It’s extremely good. It tells a very important story in a very human way. The author is honest and comes across as very unbiased, which can’t have been easy to do. The people in it, especially Deborah, are presented with backstory and history so that it becomes possible to understand them as complex people who are products of their times and circumstances. Her account is factual and has little to do with her own emotional impressions; the people are allowed to speak for themselves through actions and quotes that she strove to keep as accurate as possible. She does a good job of presenting both sciences’ side of the story (common practices of the time, the need to have samples from sick patients in order to do research) and the patients’ side of the story (lack of consent and understanding of what has happened, lack of benefit from the procedures).

It’s also important to note that Henrietta Lacks’ story is one of the most important stories in science and deserves to be told somewhere other than a sidebar in a biology textbook. And it should be told to someone other than science students. Skloot has enough skill and grace to tell this story, which has so many elements of unethical medical practices, racism, and poverty that a less skilled author might have butchered it or been unable to humanize it – making it more about the bad stuff than the people it happened to. Skloot makes sure this book is first and foremost a story about the Lacks family and it is a more powerful story because of it. You should read this book.

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2 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. I’m a scientist and I actually used to work with HeLa cells. Although I’m pretty familiar with the story from where the cells came from, I still might get the book.
    I like your blog! I’m looking forward to following it!

    i

    1. Thanks so much!
      I knew the basics of the story, but most of the books consisted of stuff/people that I didn’t know. It would be interesting to see how someone familiar with working with HeLa cells read the book, so if you end up reading it, let me know your thoughts!

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