Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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April 07, 2016
No funny, anecdotal opening paragraph here today. Everyone should go read this book.

Reviewing non-fiction books is sometimes tough because they are based on facts and you cannot argue with facts. You can’t criticize character development because these are real people with real struggles. You can’t criticize the plot because this is real life. So I’m going to try to be brief and put emphasis on how important I feel this book is.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a somewhat biographical, somewhat scientific book about a woman better known in the science field as HeLa. It talks about how a lot of scientific achievements in the past few decades (the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping) were possible thanks to the HeLa cells, the very first immortal human cells ever grown in a lab, and the shady implications behind that success.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, African-American tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31, four months after giving birth to her fifth child, and who died shortly after when the radiation and the treatments were deemed ineffective because her cancer was spreading unusually fast. Curious about this fast-growing cancer, her doctor took some of her cells without her knowledge or consent. He, along with other scientists, had been trying for years to grow human cells in a lab but the cell lines usually died fairly soon. Henrietta’s cancer cells didn’t. Even after her death, her cells continued reproducing, allowing scientists to do countless tests and experiments on them and thus becoming one of the most important tools in the medical field for decades to come.

But while the HeLa cells became world famous, no one really knew the human those cells originally belonged to, or that they were taken without knowledge and consent. With this book, I think Rebecca Skloot set out to rectify that, shining a light on Henrietta Lacks and her family's struggle during a time where medical procedures were primitive (and sometimes even inhumane!) and the treatment of people of color was sub-par. It delves on the development of consent laws, how blindly people trust medical experts, and how easy these experts take advantage of that trust.

Skloot tracked down the Lackses and did her best to find as much information as she could about Henrietta, but after a lifetime of abuse and being tricked by a myriad of people who wanted information on their mother without ever truly coming clean to them (how come no one ever told them about their mother’s cells and how important they were to science? How come a lot of people were profiting from them while the descendants of the famous HeLa could barely afford food and medication?), the Lackses hardly trusted anyone and some of them refused to contribute much to her research.

Because of that, this book is as much about Henrietta Lacks and her unknowing contribution to science, as it is about her family, and the contrast and unfairness between her world famous cells being sold by billions and her children who can’t even afford health insurance.

This book left me with so many conflicting emotions. On one hand, I felt for the Lackses and the struggles they’ve had to endure their whole life after losing their mother and being left with an absent father, paired with the scrutiny of being related to an important figure in the scientific world without really understanding why or how because no one ever bothered to inform either Henrietta or her family about what they were doing with her cells. I don’t believe that money is a solve-all solution, but thinking about them getting nothing from their mother’s unknown contribution while scientists around the world are profiting from it makes you realize all the flaws in the system whose interests it’s really trying to protect. As Henrietta’s daughter put it (and I’m paraphrasing): They used a poor, black woman’s cells to develop a vaccine that only rich, white people can afford. And ain’t that just the kicker?

But on the other hand, if that doctor hadn’t taken Henrietta’s cells, or if he had asked and she had refused, what would the world be like today? Chances are that maybe they would have come across someone else’s “immortal” cells, but what if they hadn’t? Her cells have helped saved so many lives and develop so much technology. Right now, in labs all over the world, many people are working with HeLa cells to try to find a cure to the same disease that killed the owner of those cells. Isn’t that amazing? It’s also important to note that nothing that the doctors, the hospital or the scientists after them did was outside of the law. In 1951 there were no informed consent laws so the doctor was under no obligation to tell Henrietta about taking her cells or the purpose he had for them.

If there was anything I didn’t like about this book was the author’s insertion into the story because it made her reporting and involvement very subjective. She failed to keep a journalistic distance to the subject matter, including too many personal details and feelings along the way, talking about the relationships she built with the Lackses, generally making the book about her and coming off as biased in many occasions.

Aside from that, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is fantastic and very informative and I think everyone should pick it up some time. It taught me things about the scientific field, medical laws, cancer, and the class struggles in the 50s that I never would have even bothered to think about, and it also did what it primarily set out to do. It gave Henrietta Lacks, a very important woman in scientific history, the attention and the fame she so deserves.

(I’d like to thank Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)
2 comments on "Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot"
  1. I read this several years ago and I heartily agree with you. This should be mandatory reading for everyone.

    However, of course, there was this reaction from a woman in Tennessee last year:

    Fortunately, the school did not take the book off their summer reading list. One small victory for science education.

    1. I read about that! It's so crazy the things people will object to and deem bad or "pornographic", when it's actually super educational and could even help save someone's life.


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