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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Exploitation of the poor; the real and lingering impacts of slavery and racism; the ethical use of human tissue in scientific research; the treatment of the mentally ill; child abuse; sexual abuse; the power of religion - these could each be the subject of a compelling story in and of themselves, but they all come together in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot has put together the true life tale of Henrietta Lacks, and the impact on her family of her death and her contribution to medical science - a line of cells grown from her tissue that became instrumental in a number of advances in medicine. 

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a young black mother of five children came to Johns Hopkins and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Johns Hopkins was founded with a mission of aiding all who came to it, rich or poor, regardless of race, and Henrietta received the standard of care for the time. As part of her care a biopsy of her cancer cells was taken (without her understanding or consent, which was also part of the standard of care at the time), and sent to a tissue lab to be cultured. 

At that time human cells were difficult to culture and keep for any period of time. Each attempt to culture human cells frustratingly ended with the cells dying out. Henrietta’s cells on the other hand, grew quickly, doubling every 20 and 24 hours, and continued to grow so long as provided with medium to grow in. This represented a real breakthrough in cell culture and its ability to enable medical research. Labelled “HeLa”, Henrietta’s cells were instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine in the mid-50’s. HeLa cells quickly became the basis of research in labs around the world, aiding in the study of viruses, drugs, toxins, hormones, radiation, etc.  

Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family continued on without her. They did not know nor understand that cells taken from her were aiding medical science and having such an impact. It wasn’t until many years later that they found out, and even then there was much confusion in the family as to what exactly had happened, and how their mother’s cells were being used.

Without giving too much more away I’ll say that this is not a happy book, but it is a compelling read that will doubtless make you think. Rebecca Skloot made a commitment to the Lacks family to tell their mother’s story and she does so well. Her writing style is a bit too dry and reportorial for my taste, but the power of the story really makes this a good read.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks links

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