Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks - Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

My Rating: 4 Stars

When I set out to read more nonfiction this year and inquired with my friends and family which books I shouldn’t miss out on, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks By Rebecca Skloot was top on their list. Since I work in a library I had seen this book go in and out of the library a fair amount over the past couple of years. So, I decided to check it out and see what it was all about. I’ll admit that often when a book is recommended to me, I don’t bother reading the jackets or look up the synopsis or reviews online. I take my family and friends recommendation and dive in. If they felt strongly enough to recommend it to me that is enough for me. I’m happy I listened with this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has won some impressive awards since it’s publication in 2010.  It won the Ambassador Book Award For American Studies (2011), Wellcome Book Prize (2010), Puddly Award for Nonfiction (2011), and it was selected by Goodreads readers as Goodreads Choice for Nonfiction and Debut Author (2010)  In addition, it was nominated as a Goodreads Favorite Book, and Favorite Heronine in 2010. It’s an impressive list of awards, though the last one is a bit strange since I’m assuming the readers are referring to Henrietta herself.  But still, this book is well deserving of these awards.  It’s a great read and has the perfect balance of science, history, and biography all mixed together to keep every reader engaged.

Poignant and insightful, this book is part biography, part narrative science writing. It balances what could very easily become bogged down in the science of HeLa with the emotion of what happened to Henrietta Lacks and the Lacks family. Rebecca Skloot humanizes what has, for decades, been dehumanized. Skloot expertly and respectfully explores the history of HeLa from the beginning by wanting to know more about the woman these immortal cells came from.  She sets off to write a story of the woman behind HeLa, but she never could have anticipated what the end result would be.  She never could have imagined that she would form friendships that would last a lifetime.  She discovered a tragic story of a woman and her family who lived hard lives and were clearly taken advantage of by the scientific industry as was often done in the 1950’s. By telling the story of Henrietta Lacks and the Lacks family, Skloot is able to tell the story of scientific discovery of human culture cells which have become a billion dollar industry. She presents some viable questions about whether we actually own our parts or do they cease to be ours when removed from our bodies?  In the 1950’s and all the way into the 70’s Skloot presents the dark history of experimentation on the American black population, often without their knowledge or consent.  Skloot, connects the Lacks family with this dark past by exposing the truth of Henrietta Lacks, her illness, the time she spent at Johns Hopkins, and how her cells were used without her knowledge or consent.  Furthermore, she shows how her family continued to be used long after Henrietta’s death.  To this day, the Lacks family hasn’t been compensated in any way, despite the millions that have been made off of Henrietta’s cells in the 60 years since her death.  The question remains whether they should be or not.  Would compensation open up rights to others whose cells or parts resulted in scientific discoveries and advances?  The moral and ethical questions are vast and there are no simple answers to them.

Overall, this was a fascinating read.  I listened to the audio book and then referred to the book for pictures and to write this review.  The book moves along at a fast and engaging pace.  If you are reluctant to read this book because of the scientific topic, don’t fear, it often reads like a biography.  Not a fan of biographies?  The science part is really insightful and interesting and will keep you engaged.  This book definitely has something for everyone and it reads smoothly so don’t worry about not being able to pronounce a slew of scientific terms.  It’s sure to make you think about and question the ethical questions surrounding Henrietta Lacks and her now famous cells.  I throughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

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