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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book Review

I'd never heard of Henrietta Lacks, pictured on the book cover, before I picked up Rebecca Skloot's wonderful book. Chances are, you haven't either. But you may have heard of HeLa cells or at the very least, information about medical research to find a polio vaccine or cure for cancer. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you finally meet the women behind HeLa cells, “the first immortal cells ever grown in a laboratory,” as well as her family and key medical researchers.

The author first learned of HeLa when she was 16, and she soon grew fascinated by the story of Henrietta, an African-American woman, and her cells from a cervical cancer tumor. These cells have not only helped develop the polio vaccine and made important discoveries in fighting cancer, they've also led to advancements in gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

What fascinated Skloot even more than HeLa cells and their contribution to scientific research is the story of Henrietta and her family. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1950s with cervical cancer. Doctors took a sample of her tumor without her knowledge or her family’s consent before she died.

The HeLa cells are still alive today and have multiplied into weighing more than 50 million metric tons—“as much as the Empire State Building.” Her family knew nothing about her cells being alive and helping modern medicine until the 1970s when doctors called her husband and children for research without informed consent.

By the time Skloot met Henrietta’s family members in the late 1990s and started interviewing them for her book, many of them, including her grown children, trusted no one, especially Caucasian reporters who wanted to know about Henrietta’s cancer cells. But because Skloot cared so much about Henrietta's story and knew it like her own, Henrietta's relatives started to trust her and share important information with her.

Besides introducing readers to Henrietta Lacks, her husband, and her children, Skloot skillfully informs readers about cell research and medical discoveries. Skloot also writes about the ethical issues, court cases, and laws surrounding these cells and other cell lines from patients, who didn’t realize that doctors were using them for research and making money from them. She takes a complex issue and writes about it so anyone can understand the science, medicine, and law. But more importantly, she intersperses the often heartbreaking personal story of Henrietta among the scientific fact.

The most captivating chapters of this book are the real stories of the Lacks family’s struggles. For example, Skloot befriends Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was preschool age when her mother died. Deborah was on a quest for almost 30 years to find out what happened to her mother. All Deborah wanted was for her mother to get the recognition she deserved.

In one especially touching scene, Skloot writes about Henrietta Lacks Day on October 11, 1996 in Atlanta during a conference at the Morehouse School of Medicine. Dr. Roland Pattillo organized the first ever HeLa Cancer Control Symposium; and Deborah , her father, and her siblings attended.

Deborah spoke to the conference attendees and said, “When Dr. Pattillo called me, it all became real. For years, it seem to be a dream. . .Can this about our mother be true?. . .No one from the medical field took the time.”

If you are interested in biology and medical research, you won’t want to miss this book. But even more, if you are interested in human stories and how we are all connected to one another, then read this book and share it with others.

Review by Margo L. Dill,, Follow me on Twitter:

Rebecca Skloot photo credit: Manda Townsend


  1. thanks for the reminder. I saw her family interviewed on T.V. Very impressive and eye opening stuff.

  2. Fascinating review. I'm a cancer survivor and contributed cells to reasearch as well. This is the first I've heard of this story - now on my reading list, thanks! Karen

  3. It really is a great book. I think you will all really like it--it delivers great information in a personal story. :)



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