Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Summary: -- 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.
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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. -- Crown

I don't read a lot of non-fiction books; however, the story behind the book THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot sounded very interesting to me. In addition, almost every review that I've seen for this book has been overwhelmingly positive. How could I not want to read it! (It didn't hurt that my on-line book club also picked it for our May read -- but I definitely would have read the book anyway!)

I found THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS to be fascinating. There is no doubt that this book gives the reader insight into Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman who was responsible for providing what is now known as the HeLa cells. HeLa cells have been crucial to numerous scientific and medical breakthroughs. Prior to this book, I wasn't familiar with HeLa cells, but not I'm just amazed that one woman's tumor was so vital to medical research. What I really appreciated, though, was how the author brought Henrietta and her story to life for readers.

In addition to learning about Henrietta, the reader also gets a glimpse into Henrietta's family and how they were affected by the widespread use of her cells. Keep in mind that Henrietta's family didn't receive anything from the use of their mother's cells. It is an extremely sad story because Henrietta's children didn't understand much of what was going on -- they were so confused and no one really took the time to explain it to them. So many parts of this book just broke my heart -- from their living conditions, to their health issues, to how many people just took advantage of them and didn't care one bit about their feelings.

One of the things that impressed me the most about this book the was how Ms. Skloot presented the data. There was a fair amount of scientific data (definitely not my thing), but I understood it and I didn't feel as if the author dummied it down! She had an uncanny knack for explaining the science in a very clear and concise manner so that it appealed to the average reader. While the facts of the book are true, the story (and the author's presentation of it) make it seem like a novel.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this book was how Ms. Skloot included herself into the narrative. I thought it was a unique way to present this story, and I think it really showed the sacrifices she personally made to research this book as well as how passionate she was about tracking down Henrietta's story. I appreciated getting to see the relationship she formed with the family (especially Deborah, Henrietta's daughter.) And I do think Ms. Skloot told their side of the story with a great deal of respect and compassion. I was so happy to see that the author established a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.

I also found the book's Afterword to be extremely interesting and it really made me think. Ms. Skloot presents many of the ethical issues in not only Henrietta's story, but also ones that occur in our everyday lives. She made many excellent points about patient rights as well as the controversial uses of cells. I admit that I learned a great deal from this section, and parts of it definitely made me uncomfortable.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my book clubs read this book and discussed it a few days ago. One of the members definitely brought up some excellent points about this book that I'm a little embarrassed to say I hadn't thought of. I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on a few things that occurred in this book, but I love that our discussion caused me to pause and reevaluate my thoughts.

I thought THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS was such a fascinating and well-written story, and needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Sounds really interesting. I read Nicole's comments too. But how are you in a bookclub with Nicole? It has to be virtual, right?!!!

Beth F said...

Just my usual note -- can't read your review until mine is written -- sometime this week. :)

bermudaonion said...

I thought this book was fascinating too. I was very frustrated with the way the Lacks family was treated - all they needed was someone to explain some things to them. Great review.

Marie said...

Nice review. This book is on my wishlist because I've heard such good things about it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Not long ago I posted a list of wants and needs, and this one was on there as a want. I have always enjoyed non-fiction, because it means to much to know that this really happened. It also raises your awareness of real issues. Great review!

April said...

Excellent review, Julie! This does sounds like an interesting read!

Meghan said...

Great review, Julie! I agree with everything you said. I hadn't at all considered what Nicole brought up either - I have to say I'm still thinking about it.

Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Beth Kephart said...

Great review of a very interesting book....