Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

March 18, 2015 · 2:50 pm

 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Readability:4 Stars (4 / 5)
Content:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)
Overall:4.25 Stars (4.25 / 5)

Two of my sisters and a handful of other people recommended this book, so I knew it would be a good read, but the painful truth is that it is difficult for me to read non-fiction, and this book was no exception.  Although the content was great, I got bogged down with names of doctors and labs and dates of court rulings and meetings, but I’ll give it a 4 for readability, because it was still a captivating story and I think it sits a level above most non-fiction in the readability department.

In this book, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of HeLa, the first immortal human cell line, intertwined with the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom those cells were taken, and her decedents.  When Henrietta had a cancerous tumor removed at Johns Hopkins Hospital, that tumor was taken to the hospital’s Tissue Culture Laboratory, where Dr. George Gey was attempting to grow human cells in culture.  These particular cells, because of their unusual mutations, grew exceedingly well, as opposed to other human cells that died almost immediately in the lab.  They were eventually mass produced and became the impetus for innumerable scientific and medical advancements, including the development of the polio vaccine.

Meanwhile, Henrietta quickly succumbed to the fast-growing cancer and passed away.  Her husband and children had no knowledge of the role her cells had played (and continue to play) in the worlds of science and medicine until decades after her death.  Even after learning about the HeLa cell line, most of Henrietta’s family did not have the education to understand the bits and pieces of information from the medical/scientific community that were tossed to them like crumbs.  Henreietta’s daughter Deborah in particular, endured significant psychological suffering when she came to understand that “a part” of her mother was still alive and was being experimented on and cloned.

Skloot weaves together a story that shows the incredible benefits that HeLa has brought to science and medicine, in contrast with the great suffering and loss that Henrietta’s death meant for her family, and their ongoing struggle to come to terms with her immortal cells.  Skloot also delves into the murky waters of scientific research ethics, which are not well defined by law.  She takes a look at abuses in the past, and the potential for new abuses to arise, as people clamber to commercialize their research on human tissue.

Likes:

  • This was an incredibly well-researched book, and Skloot went to great lengths to uncover the history and science that make this book so meaty.
  • Skloot tells some important stories about the history of unethical research practices, particularly on African American subjects.
  • Skloot kept the promise she made to Deborah and has used “a portion” of the book’s proceeds to set up a scholarship fund for descendants of Henrietta Lacks.
  • Henrietta’s daughter Deborah bemoans again and again the lack of accessible information the family has about Henrietta and HeLa.  I think that this is the book she would have wanted to read so she could understand what happened to her mother and her mother’s cells.

Dislikes:

  • Jumping between the story of HeLa and the story of Henrietta was not always seamless.  The book is told in mostly chronological order, but there are flash forwards near the beginning and flash backs near the end that make the chronology confusing from time to time.
  • As Skloot ponders Gary Lack’s suggestion that Henrietta’s immortality is Biblical, she says, “Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and had been launched into space.”  It’s all very sweet until she follows it up by saying, “Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.”  I know I’m being nitpicky, but no it doesn’t.
  • While I appreciate the apparent care and respect that Skloot had for the Lacks family, I couldn’t help feeling a little uneasy as they expressed to her time and again their misgivings about reporters digging into their mother’s life, and about all those who were making a profit off of their mother while her family remained in poverty.  In the end, did they feel differently about Skloot and this story?  Were all the graphic details of their personal lives necessary to tell the story that needed to be told?  I don’t want to begrudge Skloot the right to have written this book, I just hope it wasn’t more salt in the wound of a family who has already suffered so much.

Favorite Quotes:

“But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?” ― Deborah in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.” ― Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“And in the late nineties, two women sued Hopkins, claiming that its researchers had knowingly exposed their children to lead, and hadn’t promptly informed them when blood tests revealed that their children had elevated lead levels—even when one developed lead poisoning. The research was part of a study examining lead abatement methods, and all families involved were black. The researchers had treated several homes to varying degrees, then encouraged landlords to rent those homes to families with children so they could then monitor the children’s lead levels.”  ― Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“I kept reading: ‘This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. There is, of course, a physical body, so there has to be a spiritual body.’
‘HeLa?’ I asked Gary. ‘You’re saying HeLa is her spiritual body?’
Gary smiled and nodded.” -Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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