The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating mix of memoir and science, telling the story of how one woman’s cells have saved countless lives. Now an HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey & Rose Byrne.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . .
Rebecca Skloot’s fascinating account is the story of the life, and afterlife, of one woman who changed the medical world forever. Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.
‘No dead woman has done more for the living . . . A fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.’ – Hilary Mantel, Guardian
Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about "faith, science, journalism, and grace." It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women Skloot and Deborah Lacks sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot's portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people.
A superb human interest story...
First things first, I loved this book.
As a scientist who has used HeLa cells in his training, it was fantastic to learn the story of their origins, and what a story that is! The book is intensively researched (a decade in the making), so much so that the author becomes part of the story, forming a heartfelt bond with the daughter of Henrietta, Deborah.
Through Rebecca Skloot the Lacks family is introduced to Henrietta's cells and the many great things they've been used to develop. A great wrong is righted, the great apathy of non-information that the medical establishment afforded the Lacks, presumed too poorly educated to understand.
This was not a malicious, contrived apathy, but one born if indifference, which in done ways is more upsetting. For the Lacks family have been able to gain some understanding of Henrietta's cells, through the patient tutelage of Rebecca, and the scientists who have volunteered their time to help introduce the family to their mother's cells.
Key to the narrative is the notion of exploitation by the medical establishment; exploitation not just enacted due to the colour of Henrietta's skin, but due also to their lack of education (and the poor opportunity for education in their community). It raises ethical questions about the use of a person's tissues, whether the person gas a right to know (or agree) to such use, and whether the profits made from such tissues could (or should) be shared with that person.
Over all a great read, one you won't want to down.
I loved this book. As some people have said it isn't a science book, but then its not actually described as one, it's a human interest story about the woman behind the HeLa cell line and her the quest her daughter went on to find out about her mother. I would highly recommend it.
My sis in-law recommended this book and I couldn't stop reading, wonderful and interesting tribute to Henrietta Lacks. Buy it now!