The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Book Review

I’ve asked people – have you ever heard of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?  For every time I have asked that question, I get looked at like I’ve got three heads.

When I first heard about this book, I thought it was fiction.  I had no idea about what HeLa cells were or how they have changed the face of modern medicine.  Now I do, and I’m so glad I’ve read this book.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor mother of five, a black tobacco farmer from the south, who died in 1951 of cancer that started in her cervix, and ended up spreading throughout her body, taking over and killing her very quickly.  Of course at that time, the radiation treatment that was used was brutal, and the last few months of her life were horribly painful.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta or her family, before she died, some of her cells were taken from her cervix.  This was back in the time before it was necessary to tell patients that they were using their cells for research.  Before Henrietta’s cells, they were not able to make any stay alive for more than a few days.  With hers, not only did they stay alive, but they thrived, growing and growing, and allowing scientists to use them to do huge amounts of research on several diseases, including cancer and AIDS, as well as create the polio vaccine.  Her cells have been in outer space as well, taken up with astronauts.

All this went on without the knowledge of her family.  This book covers the life and death of Henrietta, as well as the authors discovery of HeLa cells, what they were and the fact that there was a woman behind them with a family.  It goes through the research process and the meetings she had with the family, particularly Deborah, Henrietta’s younger daughter, who longed to learn more about her mother and her older sister Elsie, who was sent away to an institution and died shortly after Henrietta did.

The family story is actually quite sad, and there is quite a bit of emphasis on how they never received any compensation for the use of their mothers cells.  It’s actually quite sad that the family of the woman who unknowingly changed the face of medicine, is unable to afford to go and see a doctor.

Very interesting, an enjoyable, fairly quick read.

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