Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

March 16, 2010



Karen Parkinson, Booklicious’ newest contributor, is a woman of many talents. She studied physics at the University of Illinois, during which time she made diamonds for superconductors, thereby winning the award for coolest undergrad story. She spent the last year working in Ecuador for nonprofit organization Rostro de Cristo, cuddling orphans and eating pigeons. She will be studying public policy this fall at an as-yet-undecided university.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (Crown, Feb. 2010) by Rebecca Skloot, is the story of the famous HeLa cell line, the first immortal cell line grown in labs. The author writes two parallel stories — that of the cells, and that of the woman from whom the cells were harvested, as well as her descendants.
Skloot begins by explaining her personal connection to HeLa cells, about how, when she was first presented with them, she immediately became intrigued as to the origin of those cells and the woman behind the science. From there, the book becomes the story of her personal journey to bring this information to light, to discover who the donor, Henrietta Lacks, was, and to gain information about her and her family. One of the most prevalent stories in the book is her effort to win the trust of Lacks' descendants, to gain access to her medical records and permission to print all she found. Skloot communicated her dedication to writing the book very well, but that story quickly became the focus. The work that Skloot did as research, the characters that she encountered and the stories she heard were all very interesting but ended up detracting from the story of Henrietta Lacks. Ironically, I found Lacks herself to be a minor character in the book.

Rebecca Skloot is a science journalist, and I found that very apparent from her writing style. The portions of the book devoted to the HeLa cells, their impact on science and their unique characteristics were dense with information. The original cells were harvested from Lacks in 1951 by George Gey, and Skloot provides us with the history of cell culture at that time. This emphasizes the apparently randomness of the initiation of the HeLa line very effectively. Skloot continues to follow the cell line through the wide spectrum of experiments in which they were used, itself a substantial body of work. She does her best to impress upon the reader the vast influence of HeLa, while attempting to remain readable for the non-scientific. This is a difficult task, one I am not sure Skloot is able to complete. At times I fear she falls into that scientists' sin of providing way more information than is actually necessary. I was also distracted for most of the book wondering why Skloot was referencing Lacks' medical records but had failed to include proper documentation. She doesn't explain until the end that the family wished the papers to remain private, something I would have appreciated knowing earlier.

I finished the book knowing that I was supposed to be incensed about something but at a loss as to what that something was. Skloot highlights the effrontery of the scientists harvesting cells without Lacks' full knowledge and consent, but legislation has changed since then and this is no longer an issue. Nothing to fight about there. Skloot also points out the irony of the situation of Lacks' descendants. Their mother's cells are and have been essential to medical research, yet they remain unable to pay even the smallest medical bill. Skloot fails to clarify her point, however; she doesn't argue against the state of healthcare, and she doesn't argue for reparation for the family. She has founded The Henrietta Lacks Foundation and is donating a portion of the book's proceeds to provide money for education and medical expenses for Lacks' descendants. Admirable, and to be expected. Unfortunately, I didn't come away feeling like I needed to run out and donate money. I’m willing to admit that my reaction to the book is perhaps not the norm, having worked in poverty relief for a number of years, but I mostly feel that Skloot missed her opportunity to motivate me to her cause.

The book is worth a read. There's no denying that HeLa cells are greatly influential, and the story cannot help but be interesting. HeLa cells helped create much medical advancement, and as those medical discoveries were made, more was learned about the cells themselves. Lacks died from cervical cancer, and her cells helped make the connection between cervical cancer and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Scientists then determined that one of the reasons her cells were so virulent was the presence of HPV, so Lacks received an accurate diagnosis more than 30 years after her death. The life story of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants also deserves to be heard; there is a reason medical laws have changed, and there is a reason medical laws still need to be changed. The book is good for those interested in an easy-to-read science book or those looking to get angry about medical research.


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