Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot

So, I recently joined a bookclub and they are suggesting books I wouldn’t normally pick for myself, but turn out to be some amazing reads. To me, that is a lot of why I like bookclubs, the other reason is that once a month you have an excuse to eat and drink wine while talking about books. Not much is better than that! So this month they picked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I was fortunate because I had just found it at a used bookstore and bought it for my husband to read. So I confiscated it from his TBR pile and added it to mine. This was an absolutely fascinating read. It covers so much without condemning or presenting much of an opinion by the author, instead she lets you form your own opinions.  I really appreciated this because the book could have gone off on many tangents and been quite incendiary.

The long and short of it, Henrietta Lacks went to the hospital for treatment for cervical cancer. Her doctor took a sample of the cancer and tried to get the cells to live in a test tube, they did, and multiplied and it became the first cell culture to live for any extended period of time in a lab. Because of this, these cells have been used to help cure many diseases, DNA mapping, cancer research etc. She died later that year, but her cells are still going strong today. But, at the time these cells were taken, there was no informed consent, human studies were not closely monitored and some truly horrible things were done in the name of science. This book covers all that as well as Henrietta Lacks’ family. The children and husband she left behind, along with their children and grandchildren who didn’t find out that Henrietta’s cells were still living until much, much later.

Wow. This book covers the history of the 1940s to present day, human drama and scientific progress all rolled into one. A couple of recommendations, don’t eat when you start this book. I made the mistake of starting it on my lunch break. The beginning is about Henrietta’s cancer, treatment and doctor visits. Blurgh. Second, if you enjoy a little science or history or just want a huge deviation from what you normally read, do pick it up. The chapters are short, and the science is fairly light. If you remember some of your high school biology you should be just fine.

This book really made me appreciate growing up when I did instead of 30-40 years earlier. I cried a bit at the end. (I think I am just sappy, but hey, it was sad.) I give this book 4 stars.

So last night was our meeting (my head is fuzzy today, damn wine) and Reading Between the Wines enjoyed the book as well.  This book offered quite a few discussion threads and you can easily find questions to bring to your meeting, we spoke about this book for longer than we normally do and could have continued.  Their favorite parts were the human drama that Skloot covers about Henrietta’s family.  (And believe me, there is a lot of drama!)  The science was skimmed by most, but everyone finished the book and would recommend it to other people.  (By the way, no one else cried at the end – I really am a sap).  On the other hand, my husband read the book and hated the human drama part.  He could have cared less about the family and their issues but really enjoyed the scientific history.  Figures!


About ocdreader

I love to read! I always have a book or four going, I have more books in my to-be-read pile than I can read in a year and yet I continue to haunt the bookstores. I have a problem, but I somehow soldier on. I enjoy talking books, so pass on your recommendations and thoughts - I would love to hear them.
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