The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Synopsis - 

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine: The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. 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 remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Rebecca Skloot on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Review -

I love reading on the lives of others, especially when they have something to teach us. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks offered just that. By the title alone, I assumed this was mostly a biography of Henrietta. I was wrong. Her life, cut short while just a young mother, really is the ground upon which this book is built 

There are several layers to this story and the author moves between them thoughtfully. There is the story of how the author came to hear Henrietta's name mentioned and her desire to want to know more about her. There is the story of Henrietta's life. There is the extensive research on medical ethics, the history of medical research and cell culture. Several cases of where doctors conducted experiments on people without their knowledge including those on black people, on women and on those at a Jewish hospital are shared. Then there is the story of Henrietta's descendants, the journey to find and build a relationship with them, the memories they share about their journey and the disrespectful way they were treated by researchers and media. Her daughter Deborah features prominently here.

The final chapter of this book covers where the law on cell culture, financial ownership and disclosure to patients stands as of the time of printing. In the audio book, this is followed by an audio interview with the author. I am not aware if this interview is included in the print or e-book versions.

This was an eye opening read about race, medical ethics, media ethics and the history of medical experimentation without disclosure that I feel is a must read for everyone as it looks at both the legality of the practice as well as the important scientific benefits. Cells from biopsies and medical standard tests are still being collected and stored today without your consent. How do you stand on this?

Meet the Author -

Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which has been featured in the New York Times. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She financed her degrees by working in emergency rooms, neurology labs, veterinary morgues and martini bars. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of California Berkeley, New York University, University of Memphis, and the University of Pittsburgh. She is a regularly featured speaker at conferences and universities worldwide.

Skloot current lives with her dog Clarence and cat Phineas in Oakland, California, where she is working on a new book about humans, animals, science, and ethics, a topic near and dear to her: Before becoming a science writer, Skloot spent more than a decade working as a veterinary technician in animal shelters, vet clinics, emergency rooms, shelters, research labs, and an animal morgue. Those experiences, and the ethical questions they prompted, are at the center of her book-in-progress, which explores the often controversial topic of animal research through a deeply personal story about our complex relationships with animals — their roles in our lives, and in science — and the humans who battle over their fates, and as a result, our own. 

Skloot is also a knitter, a family tradition passed on from her mother, Betsy McCarthy, a professional knitter whose story was featured on Your Life Calling With Jane Pauley.

Connect with the Author: Website - Facebook - Instagram - Goodreads