Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died in Baltimore in 1951 after battling cervical cancer. Doctors took a biopsy of her tumor (unbeknownst to her or her family until decades later) and her unique and aggressive cancer cells became the first immortal cell line used in tissue culture, known to scientists as HeLa. HeLa cells have been commercialized and have been used for all kinds of medical advances, including the development of the polio vaccine, and continue to remain important in cancer and genetic research to this day. The author, Rebecca Skloot, who first learned about HeLa cells in biology class as a teenager, always wondered about the story of the woman behind these important cells and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is Skloot’s attempt to tell the personal, human side of the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks. Skloot brings Henrietta– and her family– to life through interviews and sets this personal story alongside the history and ethics of tissue culture.
If I were to write a book, I like to think I would end up with something similar to this one. My academic interest is in the history of medicine, so I really enjoyed the science-y parts of this book and learned a whole lot about an aspect of medical research that I knew nothing about. I also really like to read about the real people involved in and affected by science and medicine, so I was also interested in the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family. This book was a great reminder that we can’t really separate real people and culture from science. Another thing I loved about this book was that Skloot puts herself into the narrative and some of this book is about the process of writing and researching her book. I know it is not everybody’s thing, but I respond really well to first-person accounts in non-fiction, as well as more creative non-fiction.
My only quibble with this book was that the story is so far-reaching and complicated that it was kind of hard for me to keep track of the story at times, especially because I was listening on audiobook so couldn’t flip back to see what year a particular chapter was set in. It is told mostly chronologically, which is useful from an organizational standpoint, but sort of undermines the premise of the story. A book that is supposed to put Henrietta as the focus, starts off being very focused on Henrietta, but ends up focusing more on her children and also the ethics of tissue research by the end of the book. As motherhood seemed to be a very important part of Henrietta’s identity and the consequences of research on her cells has mostly fallen on her children, it is absolutely appropriate to talk about her children and I think, in a way, her story is their story. But my problem is that, by the end of the book, I felt like I had lost sight of Henrietta a bit and I know that was not the author’s intention. I’m not sure how one could have structured this differently and keep the clarity of the story, but I wish Skloot would have brought us back to a story about Henrietta at the end of the book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman behind one of the biggest medical research tools of the 20th century and will appeal to those with an interest in the human side of the history of science and medicine, as well as those interested in issues of ethics, race, and gender in medical research. I think this is a great non-fiction read for those accustomed to reading fiction (like me), as it had very accessible language and more personal and emotional elements.