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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I was in the bookstore with a friend when I picked up this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. She said that it was a fascinating story - I should definitely read it. Well, the accolade of this book from New York Times writer Dwight Garner on the inside front cover was an added incentive not to mention that I sure loved the color of the outside of the book. And yes, we do judge books by their covers!

At the outset this book looks like it may be an autobiography about Henrietta Lacks but it is actually a telling of what happened to the cells taken from her body when she went to the Johns Hopkins hospital for cancer treatment. Those cells were named HeLa and they became famous within the scientific community because they were the first cells to keep reproducing themselves in the lab. At the time they were freely shared among scientists, easily transported, and went around the world. Because they kept dividing they were used in helping advance research not only for cancer but also to help develop the polio vaccine, in HIV research and so much more. But over time they became a commercial endeavor making millions for the companies but generating nothing for the Lacks family who had only sporadic healthcare in their lives.

Author Rebecca Skloot is a science writer and that made me wonder if I’d be bored with the science parts. Far from it! She explains the science in simple terms sharing, for example, how cell cultures work but doing so within a framework of storytelling that doesn’t feel staid and scientific. Our first introduction to the science comes from her recounting of a television program featuring one of the main characters Dr. George Gey as he explains “why scientists believe that cancer can be conquered.”

This book is nonfiction and Rebecca uses all the archives available to her and personal interviews with those still living who were associated in some way with the story of the HeLa cells. Yet it reads like a story and not a news report. In fact, Rebecca becomes a part of the story through her interaction with the family, and somehow she manages to make me feel as though she is still reporting the facts without embellishment.

It may seem like this story is about the Lacks family trying to make a buck, or how people in the black community have been mistreated once again. But it is so much more than that! The story is not only about what happens to the Lacks family, the HeLa cells, and the scientific community, it is also about how the times and our cultural views have changed since they were taken. A surprising number of issues surface through the story, including racism, yes, but one of the big ones is the ethics within the scientific and wider community, such as who owns our cells when they are removed? It may make a difference if they are worth money, a new issue and not one at the time of the HeLa cells. A few of the other surprising issues to pop up for me as a reader include privacy issues, what kind of research is happening to my removed cells, and how will that research impact my ability to get health insurance in the future. Having had an opportunity to look back in time through this story the question now is how do we move forward knowing what we know now.

I really enjoyed this book and had a hard time putting it down. Rebecca is able to tell the story from many different angles and keep me interested. I felt as though I understood not only the family of Henrietta Lacks but also the scientists of her time. I had to remind myself not to base my judgments of what happened back then using the standards of today. And I can see how it is going to have an effect moving forward.

Rebecca moves back and forth in the timeline which is sometimes confusing so once in a while I would have to stop and remind myself what year I was reading about and get re-oriented. That would be my only negative with this book and I would say even that was a small nuisance. At the end of the book are a number of notes and a timeline, all very useful.

I would highly recommend this book, in fact, I’d say run, don’t walk, to the bookstore!

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