The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

(Summary taken from the inside book jacket) “Her name is 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 the 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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?”

This book had me at the intro.! The introduction alone just fascinates me. To know that one person’s cells weigh that much, and that her family didn’t even know is incredible. It definitely has the feeling of a fictional movie. I couldn’t put it down, and it’s nonfiction! This is the best nonfiction book I have read in a long time! Ms. Skloot’s writing style is easy to read and understand, even when she is discussing very technical and confusing topics. It reads as a fascinating story, with a hint of technicality to it. The book is very informative and yet is also very emotional. I cried and cried, and then I’d laugh, and then I’d feel angry, frustrated, relieved, embarrassed for our past, and everything in between. It is hard to believe that the story could have taken place sixty years ago, because it seems more like something that would happen 160 years ago. To know that sixty years ago African American people were being mistreated like this is horrible. Unfortunately, it seems like all the issues regarding tissue study and culture still haven’t been resolved. I highly recommend this book, it is (I know I said this before, but it’s true) fascinating and intriguing.

There are some parts in this book that are difficult to read, and not appropriate for younger readers. There are some of the heavier curse words and there are some domestic violence stories. Henrietta’s life was difficult, and it was also difficult for her children and grandchildren. The stories are true, which makes it harder to read. I’ve learned that our country’s past is not always happy or nice, and in some instances is flat-out terrible. Hopefully with the truth of some of these issues coming to the forefront, we can learn from these mistakes and make sure they do not happen again. I highly recommend this book, because from it we can learn, and the more we learn, the more we can change for the better. Thank you, Ms. Skloot, for bringing this important woman in our history into the light, and for honoring her legacy.

Rating: PG-13+ (Language, domestic violence, harsh circumstances of the characters and their loved ones.)

Recommendation: Senior in high school and up. Maybe even college, but it is definitely worth reading!

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