The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown Publishers (division of Random House)
Genre: Non-fiction Medical Books, Biography & Memoir
Subgenres: Medical Ethics, Cell Biology
Sixty-five years ago, cells from a thirty year-old poor African-American woman at Johns Hopkins Hospital were removed before a radium treatment for her cervical cancer. The cells, termed HeLa cells for the first and last name of the patient from which they were removed, were later used in an attempt to grow a cell culture. The ability of HeLa cells to survive and reproduce was unprecedented and allowed for science to make tremendous leaps in the development of medical tests and treatments. While the cells furthered science and careers, garnering fame for many and fortune for some, the family of Henrietta Lacks, or HeLa, continued their lives, unaware of their legacy, until two decades later. Their lives, and all of ours, were forever changed by the woman whose cells live on.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings to life the woman, without whom medicine would not be the same. It shines a light on the bleak history of medicine before medical ethics and bioethics, the treatment of African-Americans and the continuing battles over who can claim ownership of our tissues once they’re removed from our bodies. The decade-long effort to unearth the story of HeLa, her family and their destinies resulted in two intertwined stories: A memoir of Henrietta Lacks and her family, and the advances in medicine and science that were possible because of her.
Ms. Skloot tells both stories with the zeal of an investigative journalist and the talent of refined writer. Were it not advertised in the book cover, I would not have guessed this was her first book. She researched the subjects until she was well-versed enough to tell the stories in a manner that makes the book read like a fiction novel. At several points, the history revealed is cringe-worthy enough that you may wish it was fiction.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a must read for the busy mom and anyone studying science or medicine. Understanding our history, as a country, as medical professionals, as mothers, is essential to guiding our futures. Without this book, so many stories would have gone untold and so many secrets might still be in the dark. With this book, we can appreciate all that Henrietta Lacks made possible, from immunizations for our families, to treatments for our ailments, and the field of bioethics to better guide medical and science professionals. With this book we can acknowledge the sacrifices and injustices to the Lacks family, and perhaps begin to make this right.
Ms. Skloot established a scholarship fund for descendants of Henrietta Lacks that has provided for education and medical expenses. Contributions can be made at http://www.henriettalacksfoundation.org.
Happy trails and may the good books be plentiful!
Jacket design: Daniel Rembert
Image of HeLa cells: Florida State University Research Foundation