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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


March 2013

Book Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reviewed by Jennifer Seifried

Jennifer Seifried is a first-year student at Western Washington University studying journalism and environmental policy. Her hometown is Guntersville, AL.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Broadway Paperbacks/Random House, 2011
382 pages; trade paperback; $16.00
ISBN: 978-1-4000-5218-9

“The Immortal Life...” details the story of a surprisingly unknown person whose legacy has impacted nearly all branches of modern medical science. A poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks (known in the medical world as “HeLa”) grew up in rural 1920s Virginia alongside her cousin Day, whom she later married, and with him raised a family. During the pregnancy of Henrietta’s last child, Deborah, a tumor began to grow inside her and she developed a fatal case of cervical cancer. This was a period when medical experiments were not closely regulated and laws to protect patients’ confidentiality did not exist. During treatment, a sample of Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken and became the first cells to reproduce in a scientist’s petri dish. Her cells continued to multiply, and to this day, making HeLa the very first immortal cell to be used in research advancements like the polio vaccine.

Skloot was the daughter of a writer and has herself been published in magazines like Wired, O, and Popular Science, as well as newspapers including The New York Times. Skloot first learned about HeLa in a college lecture hall at sixteen years old and her curiosity was piqued. She would spend a great deal of her time, especially the ten years prior to her book’s publication, interested in and researching the life of Henrietta and the still existing Lacks family. Gaining the trust of family members like Deborah and her brothers was critical to Skloot discovering the realities of Henrietta’s life. Skloot quotes a friend of the Lacks as warning her, “Have patience. You’ll need that more than anything.”

Deborah explained to Skloot how emotionally wrenching it was to learn, decades afterward, that her mother’s cells were taken without permission and sold repeatedly from doctor to scientist to lab for more money than any of them had ever seen. Due to the nature of the procedure that procured the HeLa cells for science, it never occurred to the beneficiaries of Henrietta that her family should receive monetary compensation. Keeping true to the language, Skloot quotes Deborah from one of their conversations about HeLa’s impact:

“I have always thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense.”

Skloot has produced a wonderful, personal example of how medical practice can change a family for generations. The book is a powerful compilation of professional journalism practice, research and entertainment.

Editor’s Note: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot was chosen as the 2012 book for Western Reads, a campus-wide reading program at Western Washington University. Skloot will be a guest speaker on Wed., April 10 at 7:30 p.m. at WWU’s Performing Arts Center. For more info: http://www.wwu.edu/westernreads


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