The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This amazing book of non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot reads like a great novel.  And it seems like a science fiction tale. A poor uneducated 31 year old mother of five dies of an extremely aggressive cervical cancer in the charity ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Most of her family does not even know that she is being treated for cancer. During one operation, a section of tissue is given to another doctor in the hospital to culture. When the cells began to grow and multiply, an industry is born.

To add to the drama, the family of Henrietta Lacks has no idea that a tissue sample has been taken from her.  Henrietta’s cells are used to develop the polio vaccine; to investigate cancer; to develop in vitro fertilization and many other medical advances. Not only was her family not informed of the multi-million dollar industry that developed around the growth and sale of Henrietta’s cells, they themselves were uneducated, poor, and lacked access to adequate medical care.

Her children grew up without their mother. The youngest two have no memory of her. One of her daughters died alone at the age of fifteen in a state institution. When her family learned of the culturing and sale of Henrietta’s cells, they lacked the knowledge to even understand what a cell was.

Skloot has done years of research to write this book, and yet it reads like a drama. She doesn’t sensationalize anything and, most importantly, treats the family with the respect they deserve. Skloot discusses the legalities of tissue ownership rights and mentions a number of other cases where individuals have tried to claim the rights to their own tissue.

There is a tremendous of information in this book, and yet the real person that was Henrietta shines through. This book is a must read.


Published in hardcover-Crown-2010
Softcover edition-Macmillan-2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


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