Two Sentence Summary: Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, went to John Hopkins for treatment for cervical cancer. Doctors took some of her cancer cells without her knowledge, and those cells grew into the first line of immortal human cells that are still used in medical research today
One Sentence Review: Author Rebecca Skloot deftly weaves three stories together into a book that explores the development of medical ethics and evolution of how individuals and the medical establishment think about the human body and who has control of it.
Long Review: When Henrietta Lacks went to John Hopkins University to have a doctor look at a lump in her abdomen, she had no idea the string of scientific advancement she would unleash. During this time, doctors at John Hopkins were working to grow a line of human cells that could survive outside the body. They took cells from every patient that came in, including from the tumor they found growing inside Henrietta. The difference was that Henrietta’s cells were the first to actually survive, creating the first line of immortal human cells.
Henrietta’s cells, nicknamed HeLa, became the basis for a host of scientific advancements — vaccines for syphillus and polio, tests on humans cells in space, AIDS, and even gene mapping. At the same time, companies grew and sold her cells, earning billions of dollars off cells Henrietta’s family didn’t know were taken and had gotten no benefit from. As author Rebecca Skloot mentioned when I heard her speak, there’s irony in the fact that Henrietta’s family was too poor to get much of the medical treatment that Henrietta’s cells helped to develop.
Skloot first heard of HeLa in a community college biology class, which began her long efforts trying to gain the trust of the Lacks family to help tell Henrietta’s story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells three simultaneous stories — Henrietta’s life and death, the Lacks family and their interactions with science, and Skloot’s efforts to learn and tell the story of HeLa.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has gotten a lot of big-name praise and recognition, and for pretty good reason. Skloot’s book, which was written over more than 10 years and based on thousands of hours of interviews, is meticulously researched and well-written and the stories she tells are both sweet and shocking.
But I can’t pinpoint what it was exactly about this book that didn’t entirely work for me, what kept it from being one of those huge, five star, life changing books. It certainly made me think, made me feel, and made me question, but maybe it suffered from a little bit too much hype and a little bit too many expectations (I hate when that happens!). See, I read this book as part of a class assignment, so we spent a long time chatting about it there, plus I also watched Skloot on Stephen Colbert, and got to see her speak in person. It might have just been a little too much HeLa.
Skloot is a gifted science writer who has the ability to explain what this story means effectively and colorfully. Take this early explanation of what a cell is and does:
Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) that’s full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. It’s crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell.
I like the imagery of that section because it makes the cell and science into something easy to imagine and understand. Skloot keeps much of that tone throughout the book.
Another really lovely part of the story was the way Skloot wrote about the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s youngest daughter Deborah. Although it’s clear Skloot connected with the family and gained their trust to learn about Henrietta, I think she does a good job maintaining balance and telling an accurate story. Of course, her relationship with the family is also a little controversial (but I’ll point you to this review by Nicole at Linus’s Blanket for more on that issue).
The other thing that sticks with me from the book is the tragedy of medical ethics and history of medical testing on vulnerable populations. Skloot looks at how doctors at John Hopkins did medical tests on black patients receiving free medical care, the Tuskegee syphilis studies, and others. It’s hard to critique doctors from the time because, of course, they were working within their time, but it’s also good to see that we’ve advanced from there to guidelines that try to protect patients and their privacy.
In general, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does exactly what compelling narrative nonfiction should do — uses a great subject and interesting story to discuss larger issues about life, death, and the evolution of how we think about our bodies.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!