The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extraordinary on several levels: as a beautifully researched work of medical history, as a portrait of the profound impact of racism in America, and as a brutally honest first-person account of a writer’s challenging, decade-long struggle to write a serious book. If The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks doesn’t win at least one of the major awards for books published this year, I’ll be hugely disappointed.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The text on the cover telegraphs the essence of the story: “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.”
Henrietta Lacks, we discover, was an ill-educated African-American woman who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31 nearly sixty years ago. She was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, home of one of the nation’s most prestigious medical schools and of some of the world’s leading researchers in fields such as cell culture and oncology.
One of those researchers asked Henrietta’s physician for a sample of her diseased cervix in faint hopes that, unlike every other tissue sample anyone to that date had ever tested, the cells he extracted would divide indefinitely,thus become “immortal,” and open up new vistas for medical research.
To his and everyone else’s astonishment, they did. And not only did those cells continuously divide from 1951 to the present, they proved to be so aggressive and so persistent that they contaminated every other cell culture they came in contact with — invalidating years of medical research that was conducted before the contamination was discovered. To this day, HeLa cells, named as a contraction of Henrietta’s name, constitute one of medicine’s most pervasive experimental tools.
The medical history in this book is engrossing. As Skloot amply demonstrates, it’s also scientifically significant. But for me what was most powerful about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the unfolding story of Henrietta’s life and of the lives of her many children and grandchildren. Skloot devoted a decade to befriending and later interviewing Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, Deborah’s brothers, and other influential members of the Lacks family in Virginia and Maryland. Theirs is one of the most dramatic and moving tales I’ve ever encountered of the profound impact of racism in our society. At Deborah Lacks’ insistence, Skloot reported every incident and every conversation precisely as it occurred, with no sugar-coating. The power of her reporting is irresistible.
About the author
Rebecca Skloot is an accomplished science journalist, but amazingly this is her first book. If she never writes another one, her contribution to the history of medicine and science will be assured.
For further reading
You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19.
This is also one of the many Good books about racism reviewed on this site.
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