The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo.

Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

 

I thought I’d talk about this book again because of the upcoming movie (staring none other than Oprah!) and because I just graduated high school and this rather tied into my school experience (much more than it was meant to!). I read this as a school requirement in tenth grade, (my school has required it since it opened, more on that later).

Don’t let the fact that its non-fiction or sounds like it has a lot of medical terminology scare you off. This book is written for normal, every day people. Lots of schools – high school and colleges – require it (again, more on that later). There’s little ‘science-y’ jargon and even when there is Ms. Skloot went out of her way to explain everything so that no one gets lost or confused.

For me this was a very eye-opening book about not only how science works, but also about all the things in medicine that we take for granted. The next time you have a procedure done think about that, and about all the people who died before the treatment was made or how died to make the treatment.

Attempted Ban

It probably sounded pretty weird when I said I’d tell you more about my school requiring it later. Well if you’ve heard of this book you’ve probably heard that a Tennessee mom tried to ban it last year. That was my school. Now before you go thinking that everyone at my school (or even in Knoxville or Tennessee) is backward, let me tell you something. I have never seen so many people so angry about something. No one could begin to comprehend why she was doing this, the proposed ban was based on one paragraph (if you’re familiar with the book, its the part where Henrietta does a self-examination). Rather than request that her son be given a different book to read (she signed a form saying he could) she wanted to ban it for everyone.

Now the best part was that happened to be while I was interning in the library, and it also happened to be right before Banned Books Week. So my high school librarian gave me permission to “go all out” for Banned Books Week. At the same time my mentor at the UTK’s Library was in horror that such a thing had been proposed, because it was the common book for all their freshman a few years ago and she loved it (it has also been the common book at the community college I was taking a Dual Enrollment course at and we had a long class discussion about how much we loved it). If you’d like to read more about that, check out A Year in a Library.

The really funny thing is, the last time someone from Knoxville tried to ban a book it was Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, which I also had to read for that class.

Overall

I love this book. I read it while we were on a trip from Tennessee to Ohio for my great-grandmother’s funeral (she was 94 and the most stubborn person I have never met. She survived on spite and bitterness alone and her goal in life was to have more money than her ex-husband who owned 40 acres. I think she succeeded.) Once I finished it I loved it so much that I read it again right before we went back to school in August.

When I had my cancer scare in April of 2015 (thankfully I don’t have cancer, but here’s more info in case you’re worried), I impressed all the nurses (especially the one who did the first ultrasound of my neck) with my knowledge of cancer and cells. In fact I’d just like to say thank you to Ms. Skloot, because I don’t know what I would have done if I had to go into that experience without having read this book.

I’d reccomend this book to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you like science or what the color of your skin is. It’s a fascinating book about a real-life experience and about the strange things that take place within our healthcare system. If you read it I suggest following up on the Lacks family, they’ve come a long way since this book was published, and are finally starting to get some credit (and representation when the cells are used).

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3 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. I definitely need to put this book on my “must read” list. I’m familiar with Henrietta’s story, but I haven’t gotten around to the book yet.

    I work in a cancer biology laboratory, and I spend hours each week growing cells from patients who are, sadly, gone now. By now, it just seems kind of mechanical, but I remember spending a lot of time thinking about the cells’ origins at first.

    Great review! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome!! I hope you enjoy it. I know that when I talked to some of my doctors about it – I had thyroid problems about last year – and they thought it was fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

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