The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

At SciOnline 2010 this year, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the new book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“. I’d been looking forward to reading it for a long time, so I plunked myself down when I got back, and despite some serious other time sinks on my part, managed to blast through it in about three days.
So here we go.
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There are a couple of reasons that I had been looking forward to this book. First, I had met Rebecca Skloot the previous year at SciOnline09, and I knew her research into this book had consumed her for over a decade. I was very interested to see the result. And second, I’ll admit I knew basically nothing about Henrietta Lacks. I knew what her name was, I knew she had given rise to the HeLa cells that half us scientists seem to live by. But I knew nothing about HER.
In reading this book I learned that Henrietta Lacks was a fascinating person, in a family full of fascinating people. I learned the history of the HeLa cells and the history of informed medical consent for research on human subjects and tissues.
I could tell you that the book follows the story of Henrietta Lacks, and follows the story of HeLa cells. I could tell you also that this book follows the story of Rebecca Skloot and Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, as they work to find out more about the mother that died when Deborah was too young to remember. But telling you these things does no justice to the power of this book.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a stunning debut, a labor of love in every sense. A love of science, a love of history, and over all things, a love of people. Skloot portrays the characters in her book with a sympathetic humanity that reveals how incredibly close she became to the family she was working with. As the life of Henrietta Lacks is uncovered, you can see the author and Henrietta’s family change drastically, and you begin to realize how heavily their lives have been affected by something they knew so little about. They did not find out that their mother’s cells were being used until 20 years after they were taken, and when they did find out, they were informed about it so badly (and in a major example of scientific communication fail, though of course people didn’t realize it at the time) that they were left feeling scared and helpless, distrusting everyone around them and without any real idea of what had happened to their mother. It is even more tragic that they have yet to receive any monetary compensation for the huge success their mother’s cells have become, and have remained poverty-stricken in the face of an enormous series of corporate and medical successes.
The book in incredibly compellingly written. Even though I like nonfiction, it’s still hard for me to find a non-fiction book that really grabs me for long periods of time. This one, however, I just couldn’t put down. It’s a must read for all people going into biomedical science. It really makes you think about the people behind your research subjects, and the humans behind your tests and tissues. So pick it up! And if you’re lucky enough (and not stupid like Sci, who FORGOT) get it signed! If this book is any indication. Rebecca Skloot is going places.
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3 Responses

  1. In college, my cell biology professor made students read one pop sci book and do a book review. We could choose from Origin of Species, Silent Spring, stuff like that. This book should definitely be on his list…If he’s still teaching, I’m going insist he includes this book on the list. This is the best popular science book EVER!
    Plus, I really see the science outreach connections to the African-American community this book offers. This book is a perfect primer to initiate those important, yet hard and painful conversations about ethics and mistrust of science within the African-American community, as well as the pride of African-American contributions to so many medical science break throughs.
    Go Rebecca! She wrote a book that is not only engaging, informative and also culturally sensitive.

  2. I completely agree! This would be EXCELLENT reading for freshmen seminars in biology, and I think it sheds a great deal of light on the relationship between science and the African-American community. It’s really a great book on so many levels!

  3. “…even more tragic that they have yet to receive any monetary compensation for the huge success their mother’s cells have become”
    Could you flesh this out a little? In what way were Ms. Lack’s cells so unique as to justify compensation to family members?

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