Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jen Weighs In On The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher/Year Published: Crown Publishing Group/2010
How I Got This Book: Bought it for my nook from B&N
Why I Read This Book: Honestly, I needed a science-related book to fit a task for the College Students Spring/Summer Challenge
Rating: 4 stars

Henrietta Lacks. She is one of the most important women in science, yet no one seems to know her name. The contribution she gave to science was monumental...too bad it was done without her consent.
In 1951, Henrietta went to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore because she felt a “knot” in her stomach. The doctors did a routine biopsy, but they also took extra cells without Henrietta’s knowledge. Another doctor at Hopkins, George Gey, had been trying to grow the world’s first immortal human cells. Up until Henrietta’s cells arrived on a Petri dish he hadn’t had any luck.
Throughout the science community, Henrietta’s cells are known as HeLa. They have been growing for almost sixty year and her cells have been alive longer than she was. Her cells can be found in science labs all over the world.

I could write an entire paper about the advances in science and contributions to the medical world that were made because of HeLa. These are just a few:

• The polio vaccine was tested on HeLa first to make sure there were no negative effects
• Scientists discovered humans have 46 chromosomes, this helps in identifying genetic disorders
• Scientists learned how to isolate one cell, keep it alive, and then multiply it
• In 1960, before any astronauts, Henrietta’s cells were sent to space to make sure nothing happened to human cells (this also lead NASA to discover that cancer cells grow faster in space).

The book also tells the story of Henrietta’s family. While scientists were busy working with her cells, her family lived in poverty, they were poorly educated and most of them have disabilities but are without health insurance. Henrietta’s family didn’t even know her cells were alive until more than twenty years after her death.

Skloot did an amazing job writing this book. She was able to befriend the family and help them understand what it meant to have Henrietta’s cells alive. No one else had done that before. Doctors and scientists had just told the family that their mother was helping science, but never explained how. Skloot also took two of Henrietta’s children to a science lab to see HeLa under a microscope.

There are so many more elements to this book. Skloot touches on the topics of racism, medical ethics, tissue ownership, and patient confidentiality and privacy. This is really a fantastic book. We owe a huge thanks to Henrietta Lacks. Without her cells who knows where the medical field would be today.


  1. Jen--I'm always looking for a good non-fiction book and this sounds incredible! I've heard of this book but never looked into it really. I actually thought it was fiction lol. Great review! I'll definitely be picking this up!

  2. Great review, Jen! I checked this book out of the library but didn't give it a healthy chance, it sounds. I ended up putting it aside in favor of fiction, but I might pick it back up in the future.

  3. Wow this sounds really interesting. I'm not a big non-fiction reader but if I see this one on the shelves I will definitely pick it up. Thanks for the review.

  4. Great review! I work in research science so I've been wanting to check this one out since I first heard about it. Glad to hear it's a good read and I'll definitely have to get to it soon!

  5. I've heard a lot of great things about this book but I still haven't gotten quite bitten by it. I'm interested to know what the writing style is like.

  6. I'd never heard of Henrietta Lacks, why don't they teach us about this in medical school? :S The book does sound really intersting!

  7. Woah woah. So they took her cells without her knowledge and then proceeded to do awesome things with it while her family lived in poverty? Seriously? Are they STILL in poverty?

    And what made her cells so special?

    Guess I'll have to read the book... Great review!

  8. I am so excited to read this book!I've seen the author interviewed and it sounds so fascinating!

  9. There is so much more information that I didn't include in the review (like how some scientists wanted to do research on the Lacks family so they lied to the family. The family was told that they could get a blood test done that could tell them if they would get cancer, but the scientists were really using them as test subjects...I couldn't believe that part ). It's such an interesting book though! The chapters alternate between one about Henrietta/her family and a chapter about all of the science stuff.

    Julia- Unfortunately, the family is still in poverty. They never recieved any of the profits from the research on Henrietta's cells.
    It's actually Henrietta's cancer cells that are growing, but they have her DNA inside of them. I'm not sure why her cells keep growing. Some of the science things I didn't really understand.

  10. Never heard of this! Thanks! Great addition to the TBR pile


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