The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Review)

December 13, 2010

Book cover for "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Narrators: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 384 (audio length: 12 hours 30 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased audiobook from Audible.com

From the cover:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family — especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, but it wasn’t what I got.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was simply fantastic – way better than anything I had imagined.

I think that I was expecting a somewhat dry narrative about medical ethics gone awry and the things that our society have done to people over the years, focusing specifically on the case of Henrietta Lacks, aka HeLa. What Skloot wrote was, instead, a deeply personal look into the lives of Henrietta’s descendants and how the legacy of her cells has affected them.

The voice of Deborah is haunting in her confusion about her mother’s life, cancer, death, and the immortality of her cells. And learning about the history of bioethics through Skloot’s investigation of the Lacks family – and conversations with Deborah, her brothers, and others – was both interesting and profound. Not only did Henrietta’s story really bring the issues home, but it also made me think more deeply about the ethical dilemmas that her case introduced.

The complexities of the issues were really well-illustrated by the connection made to Henrietta’s life, and it made the story interesting to me on multiple levels – I was interested in Henrietta’s life, I was interested in the lives of her family, I was interested in the contributions of her cells to science and health, and I was also interested in the ethical problems that were introduced.

I’ve listened to an audiobook narrated by Campbell before and was unimpressed, but she was definitely the right fit for the audio version of this book. Turpin was rarely used, but was an interesting contrast in voice when Deborah was quoted directly. If you’re interested in listening to this one instead of reading it, I would encourage you to go for it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will interest pretty much any reader, and I really think that you’ll learn a lot from it, about humanity, family ties, and moral quandries. Definitely a recommendation for everyone I know!

Rating:

3 Comments

  • Mari Barnes December 13, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Great review! I’m adding this to my towering TBR list. Thanks.

  • Alex December 14, 2010 at 5:17 am

    I always listen to the same audiobook you did. I was really interested in the history part, but didn’t feel as connected to the narrative of her descendants and I probably should. At a certain point it became a bit too much about Skloot herself.

    The debates around bioethics were the highlights and very well described, very balanced.

  • LifetimeReader December 15, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    I’m hoping to convince my family to listen to this on our long drive to visit family this holiday break. I’m so glad to hear that is was well done.

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