Book Club

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

My March book club pick was so good that I read it early in the month and completely forgot to post about it! I chose a nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks of Rebecca Skloot. It’s the story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks who donated her cervical cancer cells (via a biopsy) to science in the 1940s just months before her painful and miserable death. Her understanding of the “donation” of the cells is unclear. Henrietta’s cells were used to create the first human line of immortal cells (which basically means they reproduce endlessly in a petri dish instead of dying off like most cells). This was monumental at the time because it allowed research to study human cells in a way that had never been done before. Henrietta’s cells are known as HeLa in the scientific community and they are widely used in labs around the world even today. Testing on her cells led to numerous vaccines (polio and HPV among them) and advances in cancer treatment and a whole host of other benefits to humanity.

The author of the book faces a lot of adversity in trying to tell Henrietta’s story, much of it from Henrietta’s immediate family, In a way, their distrust of the scientific community and refusal to cooperate with interviews is understandable given their view that Johns Hopkins stole Henrietta’s cells and made millions off them. (In actuality, the hospital made no money from the cell line, nor did the scientist who originally developed it, but many labs did and do make money growing and selling the cells.) As we get to know the Lacks family through the author’s relationship with them, we learn that their understanding of HeLa cells use in science is extremely limited in a large part due to their lack of education. That’s a harsh thing to write, but it’s true. The science behind the HeLa cells is not simple stuff, and the Lacks family certainly can’t be faulted for not understanding it. Add that to a general distrust of the medical community and you have a tenuous relationship between the author and the family. It was sometimes uncomfortable to read actually. Henrietta’s daughter Deborah has the closest relationship with the author and she is a hard woman to understand, She’s manic and suspicious and sometimes physically aggressive. She passed away before the book was published and I wonder what she would think of it.

Henrietta’s life was a true slice of American history, and I was very interested in reading about it. She married young (to her first cousin, not unusual in her family) and had four children by the age of 30. She moved from an extremely isolated rural community to Baltimore where she lived in the last years before her death. Her eldest daughter Elsie was mentally disabled, described as “deaf and dumb’ in her lifetime. Elsie was left to die a likely horrible death in a mental institution after her mother became ill because no one in the family could or would care for her. (Elsie’s story was truly depressing to me. The treatment of the mentally ill, physically disabled, and even limited intelligence people throughout history is a black mark on humanity’s soul.) Henrietta’s story is brief, like her life, but it was interesting to know about the woman behind the cells.

I really enjoyed this book. The science was not overly complicated or dull (but I was a chemical engineering major for my freshman and sophomore years of college so…grain of salt). The author managed to write about technical content in an accessible way. The general topic of medical research on human cells is an important one for everyone to know about. What happened to Henrietta and her cells is sort of a gray area to me – she freely gave them and no one, not even the scientist who took them, could have foreseen how valuable they would become. All of those consent forms and notifications of privacy laws that we sign at regular doctor’s visit didn’t exist in the 1940s. But this stuff is not going away. Companies can and do patent human cells (it even extends into agriculture, where companies like Monsanto patent seeds. I’ve even heard of patented fish.). So while this story was fascinating to me, it’s also important for people to be aware of how the medical and scientific community is using human genetic material.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Non-existent

Page Turner Rating: Medium-Low

April’s book is The Fault in Our Stars. You will need tissues and lots of free time because it’s a tear-jerking, page-turner.


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