Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot
Format:  hard cover, 384 pages

Subject: medical ethics, cell research
Setting: Baltimore, MD, Clover VA
Genre: non-fiction science reporting
Source: public library
Challenge: Support Your Public Library

I didn't think I'd get this read  so soon.  I put it on reserve at the library and was told I was 48 in line for 37 copies.  Then three days later, it came in.  I thought I was  just going to leaf through the pages but found myself engaged right away.  It's set mostly in my hometown of Baltimore, and is so well written and such a compelling story, that I had to read it straight through.  It's the story of a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks,  whose cervical cancer tumor was so unusual that doctors at Johns Hopkins took samples before they began treating her with radiation back in 1951.  She died within the year, but her cells from the tumor turned out to be some absolutely fantastic ones that are almost impossible to kill and are incredibly easy to reproduce and use in medical research.  Her cells are known to scientists as HeLa (the first two letters of her first and last name).

Her family never knew about the procedure or about these incredible cells growing and being used all over the world.  HeLa cells are reportedly responsible for Dr. Salk's success in developing the polio vaccine for instance.  Today, her descendants are so poor they can't even afford to go to the doctor.  It's an incredible story of a reporter wanting to find out about the cells, the family, and the research.  It's well written, fairly easy to understand, and a must read.

The reporter has established an educational trust for the benefit of Henrietta's descendants.


  1. I heard a discussion of this recently, how her cells were used in so many medical discoveries...fascinating.

    Glad you liked the book so much. I was afraid when you got it so fast it was because everyone had returned it very

  2. This story was on the Sunday Morning news magazine show. Her family couldn't even afford a headstone for her when she died. Apparently one has been donated. I find it fascinating that all of our medical discoveries have some basis in her DNA.

    I'm still wondering how the doctors thought it would be OK to just take her cells without permission...ridiculous...and then sell them to drug companies, etc. for research without compensating the family.

  3. NPR has been promoting this book like WHOA. I'm glad it's getting to be so successful, for the family's sake. It's such an interesting story and though I hate the fact that it was done without the family's permission, I do think that Henrietta is truly immortal, and has helped so many people in this world. It's quite a legacy.

    Great review!

  4. I started to add a few more comments but it grew into a whole 'nother post.

  5. My book club is reading this in May and I can't wait!


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