2010. 105. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

         This is probably the only book I read this year that will be on any 2010 “Best of Lists” - I’m rarely current with my reading.  But I heard so much praise for this book that when I saw it for sale in the used book store, I couldn’t resist.  And I am so glad that I read it - it deserves every bit of acclaim that it’s gotten.  Part science history, part social history, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a hell of a read, and a story that everyone should know.

         Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who lived and died in Baltimore in the 1950s.  Without her knowledge or permission, the doctors who treated her at Johns Hopkins took some of her cells as they routinely did from all the indigent patients, in order to use them in their experiments, most notoriously, the attempt to make human cells live outside the body for experimental purposes.*  The difference was that Henrietta’s cells (known in the scientific community as Hela) actually work - and the lab sends them all over the world.  Almost all scientific research that has been done on human cells has been done on Hela - they changed the face of science and of the world.  It’s an amazing story, and Skloot tells it well.

          However - Henrietta never knew or agreed to donate her cells.  And her children grew up in poverty - unable to even afford health care, or to understand what had happened to their mother’s cells.  While scientists made millions using Hela, the Lacks’s got nothing, and never had.  They were angry that Henrietta was used in that fashion.  When Skloot began trying to unpeel the story of Henrietta the person, she had to overcome resistance from Henrietta’s suspicious and hurt family.  And that is also the story of this book, and the two tales, together, make this more than just a medical story, but also a story about ethics, and justice, and American society, and one woman’s amazing contribution to humanity.  Such a great read.

Categories:  Non-Fiction

*Or so is my best attempt at explaining. Skloot does a much better job - one of the best things about the book is how Skloot makes science understandable to the lay readers such that, when I was reading this book, about a month ago, I understood everything.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017