The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

19 Oct

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Publisher: Broadway 2011

Genre: Nonfiction – Biography/Science

Pages: 382

Rating:   5/5 stars

Reading Challenges: Fall into Reading

How I Got It: Loan from a friend

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.

A friend gave me this book to read for our newly formed book club.  I had seen it on a ton of book lists.  I had heard that I should read it, but just didn’t get around to it.  Even J’s friend told J that he had to read it.  So I dove in without many notions of what it was actually about.  And I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it.

My thoughts:

Skloot flips back and forth between the science of the HeLa cells and the life and rediscovery of Henrietta Lacks.  I instantly latched onto the science chapters.  I loved hearing the story of the HeLa cells and their impact on science and medicine.  I loved reading about the ensuing controversies over contamination, informed consent, and ethics.  I had known about the Tuskegee syphilis studies, but didn’t realize how many more unethical experiments that were done in science’s name.  I also had no knowledge of the so-called Nazi Law.  It was a revelation.  I felt that i added another piece in my understanding of society.  It was a fascinating read.  I would have loved to read what Skloot felt about the controversies, but she seemed to keep those parts much more factual.  The parts about Henrietta’s life and death were heartbreaking.  The levels of misfortune, segregation, discrimination  and just back luck pained me.  And then to see the cycle continue with her children was almost too much to bear.  At points the biography sections felt almost made up because they were so fantastic.  And yet, the characters inhabiting the story were all fantastic in their own ways.  True life can be more unbelievable than science fiction in many ways.  A fascinating book, now I’m off to book club to discuss.

Book club thoughts:

I’m back from book club to share some of our thoughts on the book…  We had a great discussion about many aspects of the book.  It’s funny that the other ladies really loved the biography sections of the book and I gravitated toward the science sections.  But it did lead to some great discussions about the world of medicine and informed consent.  It seems we still don’t have the issue clear.  Anyway, I had a lovely time and can’t wait until the next meeting.  We’re reading The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott for December.


Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Book Reviews


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2 responses to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  1. Liese

    October 20, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Love your blog! Enjoyed our discussion last night, too. I didn’t have a chance to mention it, but I just finished reading Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, and one of her chapters mentions Paul Popenoe, who essentially ran a eugenics clinic here in CA in the 1930s – one which apparently impressed the Nazis 😦 It is uncomfortably distressing how pervasive this kind of thinking seems to be. So, thank you for your thoughts and book recommendations! Don’t forget the big book sale today!


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