Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Book Review)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks cover

Rebecca Skloot - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of an unusually aggressive cancer in 1951. So aggressive, in fact, that a sample taken from her became the first line of “immortal” cells scientists were able to curate, still growing and being used in research today. This cell line, known as “HeLa”, has been grown so extensively that the statistics sound impossible to believe, and they’ve been vital to many of the major medical advances over the past half century. For all their importance, though, the cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge, and the Lacks family didn’t even learn about this for more than twenty years after Henrietta’s death. The story of HeLa is well-known throughout the medical world, but author Rebecca Skloot brings this to the common reader by recognizing that the personal stories and ethical quandaries are just as rich a topic as the scientific marvels.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is written in a deceptively simple style, with an accessibility and sometimes glibness that makes it feel like a very long magazine article. Beneath this simple appearance, though, Skloot manages to take the reader in many unexpected directions and humanize an abstract concept. This is a rare, and much-needed, style of science writing.

The biggest contribution to “HeLa literature” is the unprecedented access Skloot got to the woman’s family and friends. Opening with a vibrant portrayal of Henrietta’s life (and a surprisingly disturbing account of her death), the book quickly establishes its sympathies and draws the reader in. After that, it’s free to jump around between a wide array of topics and times: The progress of the HeLa line through the scientific community contrasts with the unchanging state of the poor Lacks family, while Skloot’s present-day interest in the story brings her in touch with both groups. Skloot herself is a character in the book, her white, scientific, atheistic perspective being completely at odds with these people who still don’t understand what a “cell” is and are afraid to trust doctors even when they desperately need care. Don’t expect this to be just a dry, clinical book. Though there are chapters devoted to the scientific side, by the end, it is clear that the main story is that of the Lacks’ family’s journey towards closure with their mother’s legacy and recognition from the scientific community.

It’s a fascinating story, especially with all the factors intertwined. Debates and scandals within the medical community come up regularly, side-by-side with advances that sound like science fiction and the daily concerns of normal people. Harvesting Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge was only the first of many ethical lapses that appear in the story of HeLa, and they couldn’t have been better paced if this were a work of fiction. In fact, the revelations about what researchers may be doing with your tissue samples at this very moment will shock and outrage many readers. There are no easy answers to these still-unresolved questions, but this book does a great service by bringing them to popular attention.

The Lacks’ family is poor, uneducated, and most modern readers will be surprised by how close they still are to their subsistence farming roots. (In fact, the details it reveals about their lives feel like awkward breaches of privacy at times. Skloot is quick to reassure us that they asked her to bring the whole story to light, and I haven’t found anything on the internet to dispute that.) It is no small task making them come across as relatable characters to even privileged readers, but this book even makes conspiracy stories (Johns Hopkins kidnaps black children for experiments!) understandable from their point of view. That family would normally not belong in a book that also focuses on the elite scientists doing cutting-edge work, but the story of HeLa connects them both. In fact, all science can be tied to real life. This is something that we often forget, but Skloot’s writing brings the everyday relevance of science into focus.

Grade: B+

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