The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Length: 12 hrs and 30 mins
Published by Crown Publishing Group
on February 2, 2010
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: Audible

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

This book has been reviewed, a lot, but I had a few things I wanted to say about it. And I figure reviewing it so much later than everyone else will remind those who haven’t read it YET of WHY they need to do so. I love how Candace from Beth Fish Reads uses bullets for some of her reviews, so I’m going to borrow that from her. Hope she doesn’t get me.

  • Who is Henrietta Lacks? Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman from the South, who, at the age of 32 died from cervical cancer. She left behind 5 children, several siblings, and her husband. She died in 1951.
  • What is HeLa? HeLa cells are cancer cells that were taken from Henrietta’s cervix without her knowledge of consent.  HeLa cells were the first immortal cells, meaning that they thrived in culture, instead of dying like all cells before them. These cells have become one of the most important tools used in medicine and science for the last 30 years. These cells are still alive today, more than 60 years after Henrietta’s death.
  • What has HeLa helped with? HeLa has helped cure polio. Helped study cancer and viruses. They went with the testing of the atomic bomb to study what happened to human cells when expose to that level of radiation. They went into space to see how human cells would handle zero gravity. They lead to advances in in vitro fertilization, cloning, mapping of genes, and more. They have been bought by the vial full by the billions. If you weighed all the cells ever produced, it would be in the metric tons. Around 50 metric tons. Despite all these contributions, Henrietta Lacks remains barely a footnote in the history of science.
  • What does her family think of this? Once they found out, decades later, they were understandably confused, unhappy, and angry. And scared. Because they found out once researchers became interested in them. Researchers used questionable methods to obtain blood and other information from her family, without adequately informing them of what they were doing. Worst of all, the family never saw a penny of any money generated by Henrietta’s cells.
  • What else is covered in the book? The birth of bioethics, experimentation on African Americans, and the aftermath of Henrietta’s life on the family she held so dear. Rebecca Skloot found herself becoming close to the family, youngest child Deborah in particular, who had a hard time coming to terms with what had happened to her mother and her mother’s cells. Ignorance of science and lack of communication from doctors and researchers left Deborah scared for her mother and the sister, Elsie, whom she never knew. And, strongest point for me as a reader in this day and age, how is it that if Henrietta’s cells had generated so much for science, how could her family be left without health insurance?

To wrap up, this book touched me in so many unexpected ways. I expected to enjoy learning something. I expected to learn about HeLa and all the advances made in science thanks to them. I didn’t not expect to find myself in tears by the end, touched beyond all expectation when it was said that one of Henrietta’s grandchildren graduated from college. I didn’t expect to become so angry over the treatment of not only Henrietta herself, but her family in the 60 years after Henrietta’s death. I didn’t expect to find myself heartbroken. And I didn’t expect myself to be so moved. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable book, definitely not to be missed. And the audio edition is absolutely stellar. Cassandra Campbell is one of my very favorite readers and she definitely did not disappoint with this one.

Highly recommended.

10 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  1. I liked this book a lot but didn’t love it as much as everyone else has. First of all, I thought the author was way over the line in her persistence with the family – when they said no, she needed to stop. Second of all, she made it seem like ALL of the family’s problems were because of HeLa and I just didn’t buy that. Having said all of that, I was fascinated by the story and I was appalled by the way Henrietta and her family were treated by medical authorities.

  2. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve heard so many good things about it. It’s good to know it was excellent in audio – I’m always on the lookout for great audio reads.

  3. I read this one a couple of months ago and really, really enjoyed it! I think it is one of those books everyone should read … for so, so many different reasons!

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