This post contains affiliate links. If you enjoy nonfiction, I implore you to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book is so good that it quickly shot to one of my top reads, if not THE top read, of the year.
About the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This book is essentially two stories: a biography of a poor, black family–the Lacks–and a science story of HeLa cells.
Henrietta Lacks had a rough life. She was raised by relatives and had her first child with her cousin, David “Day” Lacks, when she was 14. They would go on to have four more children. However, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and died when she was 31 years old.
Unbeknownst to her, doctors took some of her cancerous cervical cells, as was routine at the time, and tried to grow them in the lab. They did this with many other patients with no success. However, Henrietta’s cells were different and grew and grew and grew.
Her cells became known as HeLa, and they’re responsible for many of our scientific discoveries. According to Johns Hopkins, where Lacks received treatment for her cervical cancer, her cells “have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines.”
And yet, for 20 years, her family had no idea the doctor had taken Henrietta’s cells or that they were being sold throughout the world, making some companies who distributed HeLa rich.
Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family struggled in poverty and couldn’t afford health insurance.
My Thoughts on The Book
I was horrified by parts of this book, especially by the medical research that was often done on individuals without their consent decades ago. Some people deeply distrust the medical field, and after reading all of the horrible procedures some people had to go through, I see why. I can’t believe that these experiments were allowed.
Likewise, Henrietta’s story, as well as her family’s, was a compelling one. As I listened to the story of how her children struggled and faltered after her death, I couldn’t help but wonder how different their lives would have been if their mother had survived.
I urge you to read this book. You’ll likely be captivated by the story of the HeLa cells and Henrietta’s immediate and extended family.
I give The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 5 out of 5 stars.