Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publishing Date: January 1rst, 2010
Genre: Non-fiction, Science, Biography
Pages: 370 pgs
ISBN: 9781400052172

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary from Goodreads:
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

My Review: 
I have to admit that Science was not my strong suit in school. I was drawn to Math and Language but not Science. With my limited knowledge of science and biology, I found this book extremely interesting. I read this book for my book club and it helped spark a lot of debate about how much of your body do you actually own.

Henrietta Lacks was a young black mother and wife, who died of cervical cancer. Before dying, a doctor took a sample of her cancer cells and discovered that these cells were immortal (which really just means that they kept replicating at an astronomical rate). These cells are called HELA cells and are used in a lot of medical experiments and research.

The book does not only focus on the science behind these cells but it also tells the story of Henrietta's family who struggles through poverty. Many of her family members actually end up turning to lives of crime and I found this part of the book fascinating. Again, this is a book that I listened to rather than read but it was interesting just the same.

The one thing about this novel that I found difficult was that I kept reading the story with my modern day lenses on. I had to keep reminding myself that things were quite different in those days and while that doesn't mean that everything that happened was legit, it does mean that the people during this time were not doing anything that they saw as wrong. Legally, everything was on the up and up for that time and they would have no reason to question some of things they were doing because for that time it was the norm.

Overall, Skloot does a great job of weaving both the science and the personal side to the story. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

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