Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, an African-American woman entered Johns Hopkins Hospital not knowing that the tumor that lived inside her would forever change the field of medicine.  She would never know the impact she made because she was never informed before that very tumor took her life only months later.  This woman was Henrietta Lacks, scientists knew her as HeLa, and her cells would go on to help develop the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and so much more.  Skloot takes us on quite the journey as she investigates the life of this woman who unknowingly changed an entire field.  She shares the science in easy-to-understand language, but more importantly, she introduces us to Henrietta's life and the children she left behind.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was fascinating.  I learned so much about the science and the history of the science that led us to our current knowledge of the field.  I was often in shock at the treatment of women and African-Americans, yet also proud of how far we have come after learning the mistakes from this era.

I found the story of Henrietta's family to be even more intriguing.  We saw the barriers that Skloot had to break down just to get the family to trust her.  Once she gained that trust, she still experienced setbacks.  In addition, she faced challenges on her own and with the family to find the truth behind the life of Henrietta and what happened with her miracle cells.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shares the story of science and medicine, but as you read the final sentences, you realize it is actually so much more than that.  It is about relationships -- family relationships, doctor-patient relationships, and human relationships in general.  It is a book I think everyone should read.  It is an important reminder of our history - how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

I have read this book for multiple book clubs, and each one has brought up different topics to discuss and consider.  Topics of conversation seem to be endless and despite that I have already discussed Skloot's book in two different book clubs, I look forward to chatting about it again with yet another online book club in the coming weeks.

For fellow book clubbers, I highly recommend that you check out Skloot's website for additional resources and updated information on the family and status of HeLa research.

Have you dove into Skloot's story of Henrietta Lacks?  What were your thoughts on the science, the history, and/or the family?


  1. I've had this one on my wishlist ever since it came out, and I can't believe I haven't read it yet. It just sounds so interesting!

    1. Andi ... It is very interesting, both for the science as well as the history of Henrietta and her family. Definitely a recommended read!

  2. I agree with Andi, it sounds really interesting.

    1. Rebecca @ Love at First Book ... Definitely an interesting read!

  3. I read this, too. I also went to a book event with Rebecca Skloot at the University of Michigan. And I also went to an event at the African-American museum in Detroit with members of the Skloot family.

    As for the book:

    During the 1950s Henrietta Lacks had a two-timing husband, five children, and several medical problems that she left untreated, including syphilis. When she learned she had cervical cancer, she also ignored that for as long as she could but eventually went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she could receive free treatment.

    Shortly before Henrietta died, Johns Hopkins took a tissue sample from her cervix. As was routine and perfectly legal in the 1950s and for many years later. No one asked for her or her family’s permission. And no one acknowledged her for her “donation” when the resulting HeLa cell made possible so much medical research and discoveries.

    I should mention that Henrietta was black because that fact has everything to do with her children’s reactions years later.

    Because the HeLa cell could live indefinitely, which other cells could not, HeLa was reproduced in large quantities. Johns Hopkins gave the HeLa cell to just about anyone who asked all over the world at no cost.

    As a result, medical research was advanced, but for years Henrietta’s family was never aware of any of it. No one was deliberately hiding anything from them; but no one felt it necessary to tell them. The first the family heard of it was when Johns Hopkins wanted to test their blood 20 years later. And there began the first of many, many misunderstandings.

    Day, Henrietta’s husband, got the call but understood that they wanted to get blood samples from Henrietta’s children to test them for cancer. So they all gave blood samples, then became angry when they were never given results of the “tests.”

    The Lacks family was angry with Johns Hopkins Hospital and University and the researchers working with HeLa cells for more than 30 years for various reasons, all misunderstandings. And they most often didn’t change their minds, even when told otherwise.

    The author of THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, Rebecca Skloot, had the patience of a saint! She gave up years of her time in pursuit of information for this book, much of it wasted because of the family’s misunderstandings. And even when things appeared to be going well, a family member might suddenly mistrust her, again as a result of a misunderstanding (that she was working for Johns Hopkins, who they also mistrusted as a result of misunderstanding). Once, one of Henrietta’s children, Deborah, even went so far as to physically attack Skloot because of a (you guessed it) misunderstanding.

    So much of this book is devoted to clearing up misunderstandings, I found it mostly frustrating. However, Skloot did clear up the misunderstandings and, in doing so, told interesting stories within this story, for example, the actual history of Johns Hopkins, so mistrusted by not only the Lacks family but many other black people as well.

    Skloot also related science in easy-to-understand language. It was a pleasure to read for that reason but also because, although I was aware of the various research projects she mentioned, I had not known how a minute cell had made them possible.

  4. techeditor ... Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me! Misunderstandings were definitely a common theme throughout this book. There were a lot of them, and I found it admirable how Skloot really fought through them, even when she felt her own life may be at stake at times.


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