The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


Rate: 5/5


Medium: Audiobook


Overview (No Spoilers): One of my best friends first brought The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to my attention when we were living together approximately seven or so years ago. Caught up in graduate school, I had very little time for extra curricular reading so I never added this title to my reading list. As time passed, I’d eventually forgotten about this book until HBO made it into a movie earlier this year. See the trailer here. While The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fits into the scientific niche that I so enjoy, it also caught my attention because the HeLa cells that are at the heart of this book were used daily in the research lab that I did my PhD work in. While my research involved using bovine endothelial cells, and I had not personally worked with the cells that originated from Henrietta, it blew my mind that I had never pondered the source or in this case person behind the immortal cell line. Skloot did a wonderful job detailing her experiences and interactions while investigating that very question I had so easily overlooked. She interviews many, many people from researchers to neighbors to family members that were involved in this tragically forgotten story.  Special emphasis was given to Henrietta’s backstory and living family, who were significantly highlighted alongside the scientific advancements that Henrietta’s cells afforded. The family was deservedly bitter, almost to the point of blindness, as they had not known for over twenty years that Henrietta’s cells were still living and used on such a wide scale.  Even after they were rather unceremoniously told, the family struggled for years to get a straight forward explanation.  Their situation and understanding as a whole was heartbreaking on a scale I’ve rarely encountered in nonfiction reading. Additionally, Skloot outlined the current policies regarding tissue collection and the legal battles that have occurred regarding this tricky and sensitive question. As of when this book was published, the patient forfeits all right to a tissue once it has been ‘abandoned’ at the clinic. So any tissue that you’ve had removed from a biopsy or even a mole could still hanging around somewhere in a sample collection freezer.  As a scientist, I felt myself pulled many different directions when reading this book, which is by no means a bad thing. Regardless of your personal opinions or career, it is always healthy to be pushed in ways that test your current feelings regarding controversial topics.  More importantly, it is OK to not know the answer to difficult, or complex questions, as the world is comprised of shades of grey therefore, more often than not, there are no (and should not be) easy solutions to challenging queries.  With that being said, as a whole, the level of detail and breadth of Skloot’s work diving into the mystery and murk surrounding the origin of HeLa cells was exceptional, translating to a remarkable tale that reaches beyond the scientific origin to a story that will captivate the vast majority of readers.


 

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29 comments

  1. Thanks for your review. In my career in STEM editing, I spent a number of years training new editors. At that time, I had only an article from The Baltimore Sun as my source on Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. But I always included that article in my training materials, to give those new editors a taste of the human side of Science.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you and hello Jackie! What a good teaching tool! Stories that merge science and include the human perspective are important because that combination is often overlooked. Have you read anything by Erik Larson. He does a really good job telling the science and the history behind the discover.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book was one of the most heart-wrenching and yet beautiful books I have ever read. I loved the science. I loved the family behind the science. I spent a great deal of time in the port of Baltimore and so it was also somewhat painful to read stories set in me old stomping grounds. Glad to get the take from an actual science PhD. I thought the movie was a disappointment. The book was one of the best I have ever read.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahoy Captain! I’m so happy you enjoyed this book. We visited Baltimore this summer and I was surprised at the number of locations I recognized. What didn’t you like about the movie? I was hesitant to watch it because I thought it would be a really sad movie!

    Sarah

    Like

    • I think for me the book was just so perfect. The movie does have some good acting in it but is just too simplistic in terms of telling the story. I think that without reading the book, it would have been confusing in the extreme. It is still a sad movie. But I guess personally it didn’t add anything to me understanding of the book. Not saying ye shouldn’t watch it. Who knows ye might love it.
      x The Captain

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Second book today I’ve acquired and added to my que thanks to your great review Sarah. Looking forward to it. It’s also the second book outside my “normal” reading zone. I’m much more anxious for the book than the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so excited you have added two books to your reading list from my recommendations. I really hope you enjoy them as much as I did! It really brings value to blogging when you have people responding and conversing with you regarding your thoughts. Happy New Years!

      Like

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