Friday, July 19, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been on my “to-read” list for years, especially after hearing so many great stories and reviews of it on NPR and the blogosphere. I finally checked it out of the library for a good summer read and found myself mesmerized by it. It is a non-fiction book, but it read like fiction to me. I blew through reading the book in only a couple of days. I was fascinated by it as well as greatly disturbed. It was a wonderful book that will also provide some great lecture material as I teach environmental microbiology for the first time this fall.

Henrietta Lacks grew up in rural Virginia. She married her cousin Day, and together they moved to Baltimore to find a better life. They had five children together, but when Henrietta was 31, she discovered that something was wrong. She went to John Hopkins Hospital and discovered that she had cervical cancer. She was treated and thought she would get better, but sadly she did not. What she didn’t know is that doctors had taken a piece of her cervix and cancer cells and started to grown them in their lab while she was dying upstairs.

Henrietta’s cancer cells were the first human cells that scientists were able to keep alive continuously. They have never died. Her cells were soon passed out to other scientists and grown everywhere. They were used for a variety of medical and scientific advances, one of which was the eradication of polio.

Henrietta’s family was never told of any of this. It wasn’t until two decades later that they found out some of their mother’s cells were still alive and researchers needed more blood samples from them to work with. Henrietta’s children struggled to make sense of all of this and started to wonder why their mother and family as not credited for this and why companies were selling vials of Henrietta’s cells without paying the family. As one family member said, Henrietta was buried in an unmarked grave in Virginia and her children were unable to afford insurance, yet her cells were helping people everywhere.

The story was fascinating and brought to life the real woman Henrietta, yet the book was also a moving story of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Deborah was only one when her mother died and had a very unhappy childhood. She wanted to learn more about her mother and to let the world know about her as well. The family had been exploited before, but after a time, Deborah learned to trust author Rebecca Skloot and they went on a ten-year journey together to find the truth.

The most moving passages to me were when Deborah and her brother Zakariyya are finally shown Henrietta’s cells for the first time and are fully explained what they are seeing. I wish someone would have shown the family sooner! I was also very moved when Deborah went on a search for more information about her sister Elsie. Elsie was institutionalized just before Henrietta’s death because she was deaf, mute, and had epilepsy. No one visited from the family visited Elise again after Henrietta died and she died herself about five years later. Deborah found some disturbing information about the conditions she lived under. I couldn’t even explain this part of the book to my husband without crying.

Overall disturbing to me was that in the 1950’s it was okay for doctors to experiment on “colored” patients without their permission as they were getting free treatment at John Hopkins. Often they didn’t know they were being experimented on and the ethics of the entire thing are very, very questionable.

I could go on about this book all day, but take it from me, it is a must read. Rebecca Skloot has a gift for being able to take scientific information and make it very relatable. Henrietta’s story is important to understand where we are now and what how we all benefited from her life.

Book Source: The Kewaunee Public Library


  1. To me, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is nonfiction at its best. A compelling and well told story.

  2. I loved this book, too. The audio version was amazing... one of my all-time favorite nonfiction titles!

  3. I have really been wanting to read this one!!

  4. Linda - I completely agree!

    JoAnn - I will have to listen to this on audiobook in the future. I am intrigued.

    Tif - You should check it out, it is as awesome as you have heard!