non-fiction, Book of the Week

Book of the Week: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There were a few options for BotW this week, but I have some other posts planned involving some of them so I thought I’d mix it up and go with a non-fiction pick this week – after all it’s been a while.

Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of how cells from a poor Southern tobacco farmer became one of the most important and influential tools in modern medicine.  HeLa cells are immortal – easy to crow and still multiplying today more than 60 years after Henrietta’s death.  In The Immortal Life of Henriett Lacks, Rebecca Skloot has meticulously researched the life of the woman previously known to scientists as HeLa in order to tell her story and the story of her cells and to put her back at the centre of it, refocussing a what has been seen as a story of medical advancement and triumph on the woman who was hidden from the public by the scientists.

Henrietta’s cells were taken as she was being treated for the cervical cancer that killed her, and after they were cultured by lab at John Hopkins hospital it was discovered that they reproduced at a remarkable rate and could be kept alive longer than any other cell they had previously studied.  Scientists have been using them ever since.  Patients were not asked for permission or consent for this sort of procedure at the time, and the Lacks family didn’t know what had happened until years after the fact and, as the book was being researched, still didn’t really understand fully what actually happened to their mother’s cells or the implications.  As well as the story of the HeLa cell, and the ethical questions raised by it, Skloot also tells the story of the Lacks family, how she met them and eventually managed to get their side of the story and helped them understand what had happened to Henrietta and her contribution to science.

I’m not really a science person, but Skloot’s explanations of the medicine and biology in this were at a level that I could follow and understand, however the personal side of the story was what really kept me reading the book.  The way that the hospital acquired Henrietta’s cells is definitely unethical by today’s standards, but was common practice at the time – although issues of race and class seem also to have been at play here.  But effect on Henrietta’s children of the discovery of what had happened to her cells was massive and it’s explored sensitively and empathetically.

This book is fascinating, but also depressing.  It’s easy to see the HeLa cells as an example of the injustices that African Americans have faced at the hands of medicine and science – there are a lot of others in here too.  I don’t read a lot of popular science, but  had heard a lot about this and it lived up to the reviews.  It’s been turned into a TV film now and I hope that Henrietta’s descendants have done better from the book and the film than they have from her cells.

My copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came from the library, but it’s available in Kindle and Kobo as well as in paperback and as an audiobook, so I’m hoping that you should be able to get hold of it fairly easily if you’re interested. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the film.

Happy Reading.

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