The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Aug 7, 2012

When I was getting my Bachelor's, one of the required general classes was Physical Science 100. The course covered very basic physics, chemistry, and geology. But I do not have a scientific brain, so I would surely have been sunk except that I happened to marry a physics major. Saved! (And, no, he did not do my homework for me, but he did read every single chapter with me and helped me study for all my tests. Now that is true love. And I even got an A.)

When I was 17, my brother and I studied biology together (remember, I was home schooled). It was great fun having a study buddy, but there were still many pieces of the biology puzzle that I did not understand. One day, in total frustration, I shouted that I just wanted to throw the biology textbook out the window. Overhearing a snippet of my rant, my mom quickly rushed in and chided, "Amy! That isn't very nice to want to throw your brother out the window!"

I give you all that background so you will understand how truly amazing it is that I not only liked, but LOVED The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And I think the chapters that described cell culture and division and research were actually my favorite parts. Which made me realize that when you add human emotion and personality back into science, I will eat it up.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the true story guessed it...Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early 1950's. Following an early treatment, part of her tumor was given to George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins. He had been collecting tissue samples for years in the hopes of finding a sustainable cell line. Henrietta's cells were treated like any other, but for some reason, they took off and multiplied so rapidly that George Gey was soon sending them to research labs all over the United States and beyond. Henrietta's cells became known as HeLa, the first immortal human cell line. But Henrietta died soon after and never knew that her cells were changing the face of science, and even her husband and children knew nothing until 25 years later, and by that time HeLa cells had been multiplied millions and billions of times and had been used for all kinds of research from cancer to in vitro fertilization.

But this book is not just a biography about Henrietta (though it is that), and it's not just about her cells either (though it is that, too). It's also a memoir (a personal account of the author's journey), and it raises a host of ethical and moral questions. All of these elements combined made this a fast-paced, fascinating, and emotional read.

I had a recurring thought while reading this book: Rebecca Skloot could never write this book now. She wrote it at the perfect time. If she had written it earlier, Henrietta's family would probably have refused to talk to her (they almost did maybe it was her persistence and not the timing that convinced them). But if she had waited until now to begin her research, she might still have written a book, but it wouldn't have been this book. Too many key characters have passed away, and without their unique perspectives, she wouldn't have been able to achieve the same depth and detail.

This book is 10 years' worth of  research, and it is absolutely breathtaking in its magnitude. To be able to write non-fiction so concisely and cleanly and captivating is a rare gift. Even the dialogue comes from written records or interviews. Nothing is made up for the sake of drama (it's dramatic enough as it is), but it reads like a novel. I'm not kidding. In the acknowledgements, Rebecca Skloot says that the book was "intensively fact-checked" by many experts, and I think that shows. I was also so impressed with the little side-stories she shared which really added to the overall comprehension of the story. For example, I thought John Moore's legal battle was absolutely fascinating.

The book is not arranged chronologically. It skips back and forth between the 1950's (and later 60's and 70's) and the early 2000's (when Rebecca was conducting all her research). I loved this format because it helped connect the past with the present and interlaced details in a way that wouldn't have been possible with a chronological recounting.  She built the story gradually, piece by piece.

This story opens up an ethical can of worms. Should doctors have asked for Henrietta's consent before giving away her cells? Should the Lacks family have received at least a small portion of the profits accrued from mass producing Henrietta's cells? Of course, opinions vary vastly.  In the afterword, Rebecca Skloot said, "...some tissue-rights activists believe donors should have the right to say, for example, that they don't want their tissues used for research on nuclear weapons, abortion,...or anything else that might run contrary to their beliefs." And I could see that point. But then she told about David Korn's research where he used tissue samples from a soldier who died in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic to study avian flu today. They would never have been able to ask for that soldier's permission because science has come so far as to make it impossible to conceive of all the future possibilities. And I could see that point, too. Even among my own friends and family, I've been surprised at the broad spectrum of thoughts. When I was talking to my dad about the book, I said something like, "Isn't that terrible that they just used, and even sold, her cells without asking?" But my dad, in his dry, matter-of-fact, black-and-white way said, "Why? She didn't want them. They were of absolutely no use to her." And I could see that side of it, too.

But at the same time, my heart broke for Henrietta's family. When Rebecca first met them and began talking to them, she could tell by the way they were referring to Henrietta's cells that they didn't have a firm grasp on what a cell even was. They thought there were Henrietta clones walking around London and that Johns Hopkins was snatching people off the street to use for medical research. I think it really shows that ignorance hinders people and holds them back. The unknown feels mysterious and frightening. On the flip side, education opens up doors and opportunities and provides much needed understanding. Education would solve so many of the world's problems.

I was going to try to make this a short review (HA!), and believe it or not, I still didn't write about everything I wanted to. But just know that this is by far one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, and if I ever end up home schooling my kids, I would use this as part of a high school curriculum. I know I would have enjoyed biology more if it had been supplemented with this book.

I checked out a copy of this book from my local library. 

Content note: There are, I think, three instances of the F-word, and one mature scene where Henrietta's young daughter is sexually abused by her cousin.

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