Book Review: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

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One of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. I generally like fictional books, with a really good story and every now and then I like to delve into a good biography. It is rare that I pick up a book that is factual. But this one just jumped out at me in the book store. I almost always buy a book based on a highly recommended review that I come across in a magazine or online. I sometimes browse through Amazon for best buys but The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one that I somewhat randomly picked up while out shopping one day and it sounded very intriguing. I never heard of Henrietta Lacks before and don’t believe many have unless they have read this book, which is an utter shame as this woman single handedly has done more for this world than any other person, alive or dead, and she is completely oblivious to this fact.

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman from Virginia, died of cancer in 1951 at the age of 31, leaving behind a young family and no idea that the cells her doctor removed from her body (which she was unaware of) would make history and go on to allow scientists to find cures to many diseases including cancer, thus saving the lives of (it’s impossible to quantify) many people. Eventually, due to the success of her multiplying and immortal cells, it resulted in a multi million dollar business, the Lacks family totally unaware of this or receiving any financial benefit. Henrietta Lacks, because of her colour, was segregated in hospital on the ‘coloured ward’, and as a result was not given the same level of care as the white patients. She had a gruesome ending to her life, suffering in unimaginable pain, something that is upsetting to think about considering the lives she went on to save. Her family, in particular her daughter, eventually found solace in the knowledge that Henrietta, who was loved and adored by her family and friends, saved so many lives.

Rebecca Skloot is a freelance science and medicine writer who became fascinated by the HeLa cells, as they were known, but more importantly, the woman behind these cells. So she set about writing a book about Henrietta Lacks, the woman that made medical history with her immortal cells. This was met with many challenges as the Lacks family, after finding out about their mothers cells twenty years later, mistrusted everyone who wanted to talk to them about this subject. Growing up in 1950’s America as a black person, the Lacks family also mistrusted anyone who was white. They feared, given their mothers history, that they would also be used for medical research, something that black people at the time were exploited for and against their wishes, or even knowledge, used for medical experiments.

The book explores Henrietta Lacks, her life, her illness, her cells, what happened to them after her death and Rebecca Skloots journey to find out all she could while trying to gain the trust of the family, with particular emphasis on the relationship she developed with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter.

A truly wonderful and amazing book, which despite its medical jargon, was very straightforward to follow and understand.