“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an amazing nonfiction book. It details how the cells taken from from one woman in the 1950s helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, and gene mapping to name a few — all without her knowledge or consent.
Skloot honors the experiences of Henrietta and her family as she describes the events surrounding what became known as the “HeLa cells”. She tells this meticulously researched story of medical ethics, race, class, and sexism from the standpoint of those who lived it. Although Henrietta’s cells spurred great achievements and created a lucrative business, her family didn’t know this for years and did not benefit financially. Many of them had difficulty paying for their own health care.
Rebecca Skloot is an award winning science writer. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the 2011 winner of the National Academies Communication Award for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering, or medicine.
Here are some of the most compelling quotes from the book:
“There’s no indication that Henrietta questioned him; like most patients in the 1950s, she deferred to anything her doctors said. This was a time when “benevolent deception” was a common practice — doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients, sometimes not giving them any diagnosis at all. They believed it was best not to confuse or upset patients with frightening terms they might not understand, like cancer. Doctors knew best, and most patients didn’t question that.” (Chapter 8)
“Berg didn’t explain how releasing Henrietta’s name to the public would have protected the privacy or rights of her family. In fact, doing so would have forever connected Henrietta and her family with the cells and any medical information eventually derived from their DNA. That wouldn’t have protected the Lackses’ privacy, but it certainly would have changed the course of their lives. They would have learned that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, that they’d been taken, bought, sold, and used in research without her knowledge or theirs. (Chapter 14)
“This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!” Pullum yelled. He raised his arms above his head and yelled hallelujah. Baby JaBrea waved her hands and let out a loud happy screech, and the congregation yelled amen.” (Chapter 37)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a timely read about the history of medical ethics and how they can impact average people. As we navigate through Covid-19 with new vaccines on the horizon, it is encouraging to know that many things have in fact improved over the years. I highly recommend this book.
Rating 4 ½ Stars out of 5
Liz is a technical writer by day and a humor writer by night. She lives in Minnesota with her younger daughter and their cats, Beau and Phoebe. When Liz is not reading, writing, or searching for new books to review, she can be found practicing yoga or enjoying time with friends and family. She is savoring the time that she has left before her younger daughter flies from the nest, yet she is also secretly looking forward to a time when she can travel more and not worry about anyone borrowing her socks.