Monday, August 22, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks makes a convincing case that non-fiction can be just as riveting and compelling as fiction.

The book is part mystery, part history, and part story of Henrietta Lacks whose cultured cells were the first human cells to grow outside a person’s body and to survive indefinitely. Her cells enabled scientists to research the genes that cause cancer and those that check it. Her cells helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease. Henrietta’s cells were essential to the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, and gene mapping.

More than facts, this book is stories about relationships. The story begins with Henrietta growing up in Clover, Virginia, picking cotton and going to tobacco auctions in South Boston. There is the relationship between Loretta Pleasant, her nine siblings, and her husband, David Lacks. There is the journey to discover the relationship between Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and the mother and the sister Deborah never knew. There is the connection between the Deborah’s four siblings and their families. There is the narrative of the author’s struggle to build a relationship with the Lacks’ family. This mini-story is filled with unexpected twists and turns as the Lacks family learns about their mother, her cells, and their lack of financial compensation for Henrietta’s cells. Finally, there is the relationship between science, business, and the rights of patients. The author raises the questions of ethics in science but allows readers to make their own judgments.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a narrative which embraces scientific fact and explores human nature. The reader could skip the medical notes and still close the book knowing the undeniable impact of Henrietta Lacks on individual’s lives both past and present. I highly recommend this book.
submitted by Ruth Heany, member of Hattie's Third Tuesday Book Club

Next month we will be reading "The Room" by Emma Donoghue, a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. Join us on each Third Thursday at Hattie's for a lively discussion and some great snacks!


  1. Loved this book -- thought it most interesting.

  2. This book is not a cut and dry documentary of cell research, but has inspired me to research into the subject a little further. I had heard about the horror stories of human research done without the subjects consent such as the Tuskegee Experiment and know of the African-American distrust of medicine because of it. This is the story of a woman's cells that helped create so-called modern miracles but her children to this day do not understand what was done with those cells or why. Some doctors are very good and talking down to the less educated and have an "I know what is best" attitude toward their patients in general, and while some may find it hard to believe that a physician would leave the patient and family in the dark, I know it is not that far-fetched, "just sign this paperwork" is something I have experienced myself. So while this book may not be an
    "unbiased" presentation of the facts, it is very enjoyable and could spark interest in science amongst young and old.