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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

May 7, 2010

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman living in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1950’s.  When she felt a “knot in her womb,” she went to Johns Hopkins to seek medical care.  She was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer.  At about this same time, doctors and scientists were trying desperately to grow cells in a laboratory.  Unbeknownst to Henrietta, or her family, cells from her tumor were successfully grown and used in countless scientific and medical breakthroughs.  Some people were profiting from the cells while Henrietta’s family was frustratingly kept in the dark.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and HeLa cells.  I found the story to be fascinating and could understand the Lacks family’s frustration.  Their relative’s cells were partially responsible for all kinds of medical advancements and they couldn’t afford medical care or get answers from anyone.

Rebecca Skloot spent a lot of time and money researching Henrietta and HeLa and seems to have done a thorough job.  Even though it’s non-fiction, the book doesn’t come across as dry or over-academic.  I found myself engrossed in the sad story of Henrietta and her descendants.

There’s a lot to think about in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – the book brings up lots of moral and ethical questions.  Is it okay for a person or company to profit off of the cells of someone else?  Should scientist be allowed to use your cells in any type of research they deem necessary?  Obviously, the book doesn’t answer those questions – it just forces the reader to think about them.  You will think twice the next time you go to the doctor after reading this book.

At times, I wondered what the author’s motivation was in writing this book – I felt like she pushed herself on the Lacks family initially, but they eventually formed a good relationship.  Rebecca Skloot has set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help the descendants of Henrietta Lacks with educational and medical expenses, and a portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to it.

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41 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2010 5:49 am

    Oooh, this is one that I put I my “want” list. I really do like good non-fiction, because often you just can’t make this stuff up. This story fascinates me. There was an interview of Skloot in the latest Bookmarks, which presents the author as a woman who was grabbed by the story and the injustice. I’m glad that the family might be getting back some of what they deserve.

  2. May 7, 2010 6:02 am

    Glad u enjoyed this one Kathy. (me too)

  3. May 7, 2010 6:37 am

    This book is on my TBR list too and glad to see such a postive review.

    You make a valid point about the author’s insistence with the family. Still from what I’ve heard about the book I suspect they are glad that their mother’s full story has come out. I also hope the Lack family receives compensation for their Lack’s contribution to medicine.

  4. May 7, 2010 7:11 am

    Excellent review. I was so impressed with this book on many levels — story, writing, presentation, etc.

  5. May 7, 2010 8:09 am

    I have to buy a copy of this book. It’s been on my radar since I first heard about it and it sounds so intriguing and fascinating. It’s the kind of book that sounds like it would be good to discuss with a book club or a group of friends.

  6. May 7, 2010 8:47 am

    I heard about this book, but haven’t read it and yours is the first review. It sounds very interesting. I’m going to look for it.

    Straight From Hel

  7. May 7, 2010 9:01 am

    I have been reading about this book all over the place and think that the story does indeed sound very sad. I mean, it’s great that Henrietta’s cells have provided so many wonderful cures for hard to treat diseases, but she should have definitely been consulted about the use of her body tissues, and her family should have been able to see some kind of benefit from having her cells harvested. At the very least, they should have had access to the information that they were seeking. I really, really want to read this book, and think that you did a wonderful job with this review!!

  8. May 7, 2010 9:05 am

    The more I read about this book the more I want to read it. I didn’t know a portion of the sale of the book go to help her family; that makes me want to buy it all the more. Great review Kathy!

  9. May 7, 2010 10:20 am

    Great review. Incredible story. I’ve added this book to my wish list.

  10. May 7, 2010 11:22 am

    Great review. It makes you wonder how many other peoples cells have been used with out their knowledge.

  11. May 7, 2010 11:56 am

    Good review and good for the author. I’m glad she brought this issue to light.

  12. May 7, 2010 12:50 pm

    This was a fabulous book, glad you enjoyed it too!

  13. May 7, 2010 12:53 pm

    This book sounds important. With all the attention to medical “privacy” and such today, this book tells a true story of rights being violated, although it was for scientific/research purposes. It sounds as if this book makes you think about numerous ethical issues. Great review, Kathy!

  14. May 7, 2010 1:15 pm

    I just listened to Sklott on Radio Lab the other day and I’m more convinced than ever that I need to get my hands on this one.

  15. stacybuckeye permalink
    May 7, 2010 1:35 pm

    I’ve been unsure about this one, but it seems like everyone who reads it likes it. I already think twice before I go to the doctor, so that would be nothing new 🙂

  16. May 7, 2010 2:55 pm

    Sounds like a great discussion book. A fascinating story, mostly because it’s actually true.

  17. Kathleen permalink
    May 7, 2010 2:58 pm

    I already have this one on my list. I think it would make a great selection for my book club since there is so much to discuss and so many ethical ambiguities to sort through.

  18. May 7, 2010 3:36 pm

    How awful that so many people made so much money out of her illness. She should have been given something. At least her illness helped to save others though.

  19. May 7, 2010 3:38 pm

    I agree with Stacybuckeye that it looks like everyone who reads this seems to like it. It sure does seem like a good book club selection!

  20. May 7, 2010 4:16 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I do sometimes wonder about the author’s motivation too.

  21. May 7, 2010 5:58 pm

    Please stop by my site, an award awaits you.

  22. May 7, 2010 6:59 pm

    Sounds like a really interesting book. I’ll admit that I have an interest in most books related to medicine so I’m definitely adding this to my TBR pile. Thanks for the great review!

  23. May 7, 2010 7:08 pm

    I would just love to hear what Henrietta Lacks thinks of all this.

  24. Lynne permalink
    May 7, 2010 8:22 pm

    Mmmm, mmmm…loved this book! Interesting story and so well written.

    I love a book that makes me think.

  25. May 7, 2010 9:24 pm

    I read in Nicole’s review of this book where she talked about the author pushing herself on the Lacks family. That part really bothers me and I think it’s one of the reasons why I haven’t read it yet.

  26. May 7, 2010 10:25 pm

    This remains my favorite non-fiction read of the year, so far, even if the author was pushy at times. 😀

  27. May 7, 2010 10:55 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed this book and that it was thought-provoking. I do feel this is a very good question that the book addresses and borders on the subject of ethics, as well.

  28. May 8, 2010 1:13 am

    I’m so very curious to read this one!

  29. May 8, 2010 4:47 am

    Great review, Kathy! I felt pretty much the same. =)

  30. May 8, 2010 6:59 am

    Wow! What a story! I’d love to read more about Henrietta and her family. As far as going to doctors, just by reading your review I think I will think twice.

  31. May 8, 2010 10:14 am

    Great review. I’ve heard this book buzzed about so much. I’m glad you liked it!

  32. May 8, 2010 10:36 am

    I’ve heard a lot of great things about this one!

  33. May 8, 2010 10:49 am

    Great review. I’ve thought a lot about this book since we discussed it!

  34. May 8, 2010 12:53 pm

    I’ve read in several reviews that people thought that the author pushed herself on the family. It does look like it would be a fascinating read though.

  35. May 8, 2010 2:02 pm

    I’m glad the foundation now exists and that the book will help contribute towards it. It’s only fair.

  36. May 8, 2010 6:53 pm

    I finished this book the other night and LOVED it.

  37. May 8, 2010 7:06 pm

    I am reading this right now, about half way through. My work is having a book discussion in a couple of weeks – can’t wait to hear everyone’s thoughts (especially since I work in healthcare!) I’m liking it so far.

  38. May 8, 2010 7:34 pm

    I enjoy non-fiction books that read like fiction, and not like a stuffy history book or something. This story is very intriguing and should make every one think about these important issues.
    Thanks for the wonderful review Kathy 🙂

  39. May 10, 2010 1:31 pm

    This is a book that I find fascinating. Thanks for the great review.

  40. May 10, 2010 4:05 pm

    Kathy, you really summed up the big issues, which continue to bedevil medical researchers today. The 1950s backdrop of segregated Baltimore makes the story much more poignant. For those who haven’t read the book and want a condensed version, here’s a 1997 story about the Lacks familyfrom the Baltimore Sun:

  41. May 17, 2010 2:10 am

    Wow, this sounds like an insense but really good read. So unbelievable but real. I added it to my TBR.

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