“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Book Review

As a journalist interested in science, I had been meaning to read this novel for a while. I hadn’t gotten around to picking it up when my mom brought it home saying one of her professors she works with wanted me to read it for it’s journalistic value (Thanks Donald!!).

Skloot book cover

Front cover of the book by Rebecca Skloot

I picked up this book and couldn’t stop reading. The author, Rebecca Skloot was able to capture my attention by switching between the distant past of Henrietta’s life, and the near past anecdotes of her attempting to obtain information from friends and family of Miss Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer living in Maryland in the 1950s whose cells were taken from a tumor when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat cervical cancer. It is unclear if these cells were obtained with consent, but these cells, known as HeLa, were able to continue to replicate themselves. This allowed for scientists all over the world to research how human cells work, how disease effects cells, and eventually led to the production of vaccines for many ailments.

This book touches on the issues of racial inequality, economic inequality, patient disclosure, and the balance of rights to tissue and scientific research.

While Lacks’ cells were important to scientific research, her family remained in the dark about how important her death really was. This is where Skloot comes in.

Skloot spent years trying to gain the trust of the family, particularly Lack’s daughter Deborah, so she could write the real story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Skloot was able to get the story of Henrietta’s life through many interviews and was able to tell her family just how important she was.

The book was wonderfully researched, well written, and gave me a great example of someone who was willing to put blood, sweat and tears into the sake of writing a story about a woman who was left under appreciated for the sake of science advancements.

Check out Rebecca Skloot’s website here.