The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author – Rebecca Skloot
Publication Date – 2010
Number of Pages – 400
Genre – Biography
Time Period – 1956

She’s been dead for decades but her cells live on!

“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…” ~ Burb from Amazon

My Take:

From time to time I like to dabble into non fiction stories. Non fiction (if it’s not comic), has to be gripping and irresistible for me to want to read. This is such an awesome book to check out! I find it remarkable – the amount of time and effort Rebecca Skloot, a graduate student at the time – put into researching this first novel of hers. It is said she spent ten years doing research and interviewing subjects for this story. I have to say, the final product is well worth all the effort.

On the surface, this book sounds scientific and boring but I assure you, it is nothing like that. I personally do not like or understand science, but this book is so intriguing and quickly sparked my interest. Scientific terms are not so heavily used and even when they are, they are easy enough for any lay person to follow. I learned quite a number of significant things. For one, it is astonishing that (prior to Henrietta) no other cells had been found to behave the way HeLa cells did. Secondly, all the amazing new discoveries in medicine that has happened with the help of HeLa cells is unbelievable. Nonetheless, the fact about removing Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her consent and her family’s ignorance of this fact until twenty years after Henrietta’s death raises ethical and moral issues – which Rebecca Skloot rightly explored. Apart from this, while Henrietta’s cells grew into a billion dollar empire for the science and research world, her family are languishing in abject poverty without the ability to even afford health insurance. This is a book you really want to read for yourself. It is a story of discovery and of love and unity for family.

Notably, Rebecca Skloot’s writing is powerful and at the same time respectful for the Lacks family. Though most of the Lacks family members are of low-income and uneducated, Skloot took time to befriend them and explain in detail her findings of how their mother’s cells has been wonderful in aiding the advancement of medicine and all the diseases that can now be cured with the help of HeLa cells. She also went ahead – without bitterness or judgement – to show the injustice done to Henrietta and subsequently to some of the family members who were also experimented upon without their consent.

Hey! – this is a great book that you cannot put down. Just try a page or two – I promise you’d be hooked like I was. This is one of those true stories that keep you on the edge of your seat. It drives you to ask a lot of questions and look for answers about why and how some of the things happened in this book, it is just an eye opener. This book indeed is a non fiction that reads like fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack is fast paced, enthralling, and thought-provoking.

This is a great old favorite which has won so many awards since it was written. Readers of true stories would eat this up.

About The Author:

Rebecca Skloot is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Her award winning science writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan…Read more ~


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