Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Publication Date: February 2, 2010
Length: 12.5 hours
Description from Goodreads:
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.
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 this 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. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
I first heard about this book back during my Hamilton obsession when I found out that Renée Elise Goldsberry (who played Angelica in the original cast of Hamilton) was going to be portraying Henrietta Lacks in a movie adaptation of this book.
I know this book is almost 10 years old now, but I hadn’t heard of it before then. And I hadn’t heard of Henrietta Lacks either.
Despite her importance in modern medicine, I hadn’t heard of this woman. Her cells have helped develop treatments for cancer and AIDS, the Polio vaccine, and other medical advancements. Yet, I still didn’t know who she was.
At the start of the book, Rebecca Skloot details a story in which she also didn’t know the name Henrietta Lacks. In a biology class, she learns about HeLa cells. She tries to find more information about the woman the cells belong to, but doesn’t find much information out. This sets her on a course of trying to uncover the truth about this woman and about these cells.
She spends years researching Henrietta and HeLa, and this book is a result of her efforts.
The books divides its time between explaining the importance and history of HeLa cells and talking about the woman they belonged to. I loved both aspects of the book, and thought the author did a wonderful job of smoothly transitioning between the two.
Skloot clearly did her research here, not only on the scientific aspect (she is also a scientific freelance writer so she is very qualified to speak on the science behind it), but on the Lacks family.
I think this book is one of the first to actually dive into the Lacks family. In fact, if you look at the Wikipedia article for Henrietta Lacks, about half of the citations link to this book.
She details the injustices that the Lacks family suffers. How Henrietta’s children are living in poverty and unable to afford health insurance, while major companies are profiting off of HeLa cells. How Henrietta’s cells were taken from her without the family’s permission. How the Lacks family didn’t even know about HeLa cells for decades.
Interestingly, the author is also a character in the story. She spends a lot of time with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and much of the book is a retelling of Skloot’s time with Deborah. The way Skloot does this really makes you feel like you are inside the story.
I also listened to the audiobook and I really loved the narrator. She does a great job and I think listening to it really adds to the story, and also contributed to that sense of being in the story.
Overall, this book is incredibly well-written and well-researched. You can tell that Skloot really went above and beyond to tell this story, and to tell every side of it. If you haven’t read this book yet, please do. You won’t regret it.