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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebeca Skloot

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebeca Skloot post image

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 2010
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★½☆

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.

Other Reviews: Fizzy Thoughts | Linus’s Blanket

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andi April 8, 2010, 7:54 am

    Great review! I’m on the list for this one at the library, but everyone in front of me must be enjoying it (or wading through) because it’s taking forever to work myself to the front of the line. I first heard about HeLa cells in a paragraph-long reading we did in a College Reading course I teach. Random!

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:47 pm

      Andi: Very random! It’s a good book to settle in with, so I can imagine it taking awhile to get through. I hope you like it when you get to read it!

  • charley April 8, 2010, 8:19 am

    Nice post. This one is on my list, but I plan to wait a while to read it. Like you, I sometimes find that my experience with a book suffers when there is much current hype.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:48 pm

      charley: I always find this — too much hype makes it hard for me to read a book and appreciate the book for itself. That’s why I tend to read older books, if given the chance 🙂

  • Heather April 8, 2010, 8:59 am

    thanks for your review. I had not heard of this and it’s rather fascinating. I have added it to my reading list.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:49 pm

      Heather: It’s quite the fascinating story, lots of things I’d never heard of or thought about before.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) April 8, 2010, 12:49 pm

    I’ve really been looking forward to this book, so I’m glad I read your review – I’ve tempered my expectations a little bit now.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:50 pm

      bermudaonion: Good choice; I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you get to read it!

  • Lisa April 8, 2010, 2:48 pm

    I finished this one last week. I enjoyed it a lot, but eventually got bogged down in all the scientists and medical communities. I really enjoyed the way the author made herself part of the story though, that was really well done.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:53 pm

      Lisa: I thought the author weaved herself into the story really well, too. Sometimes when authors do that it seems awkward, but this time it was effective.

  • Jess - A Book Hoarder April 8, 2010, 8:09 pm

    I just saw Rebecca Skloot on on Book TV and the book sounded so interesting I added it to my wishlist. Thanks for the review.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:54 pm

      Jess: No problem. I’ve seen her speak a couple of times, and she’s always been very articulate and warm. I think she’s done a great job of marketing herself and her book.

  • Elise April 9, 2010, 6:41 am

    Thanks for the wonderful review!! This book sounds fascinating… I’m a nurse and enjoy reading about medically stuff!!

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:55 pm

      Elise: As a nurse, I’m sure this book would be even more fascinating. I listened to a number of doctors talk about the book and their experiences with HeLa, and how knowing about where their cells came from was interesting for them.

  • Belle April 9, 2010, 3:52 pm

    This sounds like such an interesting book, one that really makes you think. Great review.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:55 pm

      Belle: Yes, it does make you think — there are a lot of complicated questions when it comes to ethics and our bodies.

  • softdrink April 9, 2010, 5:00 pm

    Bummer about the too much HeLa. This is currently my favorite non-fiction read this year, although I haven’t read that many other non-fiction books. Still, I did like her approach.

    • Kim April 12, 2010, 2:56 pm

      softdrink: Her approach was good, I liked it too. It could have been very complicated to tie all those things together, but she was pretty effective at it. And I loved the timeline at the top of all the pages because it helped keep things straight.

  • Kailana April 13, 2010, 10:30 am

    I have this book on hold at the library. I am curious about it

    • Kim April 17, 2010, 3:18 pm

      Kailana: Overall, it’s a very good book. There are lots of great issues and questions to think about, plus a great story. I hope you get a chance to read it!

  • Vivan Urban December 19, 2010, 4:14 pm

    This was the third book to read on my new Kindle. It was like I was right there with the author. I had never heard of Hela and felt very informed after reading the book. To tell the truth, I am going to read it again. I often read books that I like several times.

    • Kim December 21, 2010, 10:19 pm

      Vivian: I agree with you about feeling informed after reading the book – I thought her science explanations were excellent, and made some of the most confusing aspects of the issues quite clear.