Books of Interest: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

CEW staff members review books that we have found interesting, thought-provoking or useful.


According to author Rebecca Skloot, when some people first hear about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, their reaction is “No thanks! It's about science. I hate science.” But both Skloot and I guarantee that, once you're 10 pages in, you'll be hooked like you're reading a detective thriller.

Skloot is a journalist who spent ten years writing this book, her first. Her impressive and exhaustive research consisted of “thousands of hours of interviews with Henrietta Lacks' family and friends, as well as with lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists.”

Henrietta, a poor African American mother of five children, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The disease progressed rapidly and painfully, and Henrietta died in 1951 at the age of 31. One of Skloot's goals is to discover who Henrietta was–to describe the real person and to make her live again in the eyes of her children and in the consciousness of the countless scientists throughout the world who've worked with HeLa cells without ever knowing where or from whom the cells came.

“HeLa” refers to the cancer cells that doctors remove d, without consent, from Henrietta's cervix after her death. Immortal Life is the amazing story of how those cells–unlike anything doctors and researchers had ever seen before – survived and continue to reproduce at an amazingly rapid rate. Those still living cells have been “bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world.” They have helped researchers seeking cures for polio, cancer, and AIDS. They have led to today's world of gene mapping and invitrofertilization .

As Skloot explains, “The history of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells raises important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class.” The author's fascinating nonfiction account moves between several different stories, provoking intriguing questions about all of these issues. And, at the same time, it tells a moving story of Lacks' family.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an easy-to-follow biology primer. It's an in-depth look at the world of research scientists, including accounts of such shameful practices as the Nuremberg and Tuskeegee experiments. It's an account of Henrietta’s life and world. And, perhaps most memorably, it's the story of how Skloot won the trust of Henrietta's angry and uninformed family and helped them learn about the monumental impact their mother's life has had on modern medicine.

–Jean Waltman