Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This time I'm featuring another office book club pick, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It's been a while since I've read any non-fiction, and this book sounded like a really interesting subject, so I was looking forward to reading it.

The book is about a woman named Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line, known as HeLa, that came from her cervical cancer cells in 1951. Henrietta was a poor black woman who worked the same tobacco fields as her slave ancestors, but her cells (taken without her knowledge) became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today even though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were key in developing the polio vaccine and have helped uncover secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb. They have been bought and sold by the billions... yet Henrietta remains virtually unknown and buried in an unmarked grave, and her family members cannot afford health insurance.

It's hard to believe I hadn't heard about this before! What a fascinating tale, and Skloot weaves a fascinating story spanning decades and generations. The book is a journey of discovery through Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother. It deals with the ethical issues of race and class in medical research, but also explores the personal aspects of Henrietta Lacks herself... not just her immortal cells.

The story itself is extremely fascinating, but toward the middle of the book I found myself a little bogged down by too many "science" chapters in a row. For me it seemed a little repetitive. I really only cared about the basic science and wanted to get back to learning about Henrietta's personal story and her family today. But if you're into science and medicine I doubt you'll mind.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is kind of a heavier read, but I thought it was very interesting and thought provoking, and in the end I'm glad I stuck it out. Give it a whirl if it seems like your cup of tea.   


  1. I read this a few years ago and thought it was so fascinating too!! My dad is a physician and said in med school they used HeLa cells all the time.

  2. I just read that last year! I thought it was really interesting, although you're right, it's a heavier read. I learned a lot from it though. I thought it was well worth the read!
    Isn’t That Charming.

  3. We had to read this for work since it relates to medical research. Super interesting!

  4. It sounds super interested! I'm going to jot it down...sounds like something IC might like :)

  5. I've heard of this story before and have been fascinated by it, but never really dug in. Maybe someday I'll read the book (though my to-read list is really long right now). Even if there is a lot of science. Way to power through!

  6. Sounds interesting but maybe a little too heavy for me :) I like to relax and unwind when I read!

    {love jenny xoxo}


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