The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I chose to read this book because I had heard from several people that it was amazing. I had also heard that we were going to talk about Henrietta Lacks in science class later in the year and wanted to be prepared for the discussion.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, describes the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who lived from 1920 to 1951. She had terminal cervical cancer, and a sample of her cells was taken during her treatment, without her knowledge or consent. Normal cancer cells can only survive outside of the body for a few days, so much to the surprise of the doctors, hers didn’t just survive, they thrived! Her cells reproduced faster than they died off, enabling researchers to grow them for testing new drugs. Before then, scientists could only theorize that these “immortal” cells existed, but now had proof that they were real. Doctors named her cells HeLa for Henrietta Lacks. Until this book was published, that was the only way she was known, when she was known at all. Since then, no other “immortal” cells have been found. Lacks’ cells allowed cancer researchers and pharmaceutical companies to make billions off all sorts of new drugs, but they didn’t even think to compensate the Lacks family.

Skloot first learned about Lacks during a high school science class. Her teacher was talking about HeLa cells, and she asked where the term came from. He told Skloot that the term came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, but not much else was known about her. Years later, after Skloot had become a writer, she remembered Lacks and set off in search of her story. But before Skloot could talk to Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, she had to prove to the family that she wasn’t just another white doctor, coming to lie and take advantage of them, as many doctors had done before. For example, the surgeon who operated on Lacks took her cells without asking, then the doctors asked to do an autopsy after her death, but took more samples of her cells instead. Once she had earned the family’s trust, Skloot and Deborah traveled around together, uncovering the history of one of the most influential women–who wasn’t a scientist–to ever influence medical science.

Deborah Lacks seems like a smart, strong-willed woman who didn’t let anyone boss her around. For example, when she and Skloot went to the Crownsville mental hospital to uncover the fate of Deborah’s sister, Elsie, she refused to let the hospital personnel turn her away, insisting that they had no right to since she filled out the appropriate forms. I would love to meet Deborah, due to her upbeat attitude and stick-to-it-ness, but I doubt she would want to meet me, due to my being an annoying white kid.

This book is similar to To Kill a Mockingbird (TKM), in that both books strive to expose injustices towards the African-American population during the mid-1900s. Even though TKM is fiction, it describes an actual problem in society at the time, which was that African-Americans were unfairly tried for crimes they didn’t commit, then sent to jail, or lynched. The Immortal Life shows another aspect of racism that was more subtle, but still there. Doctors would take and experiment on cells of African-American patients without their informed consent. Henrietta Lacks was just one of many. Within the African-American community, unverified stories about “Night Doctors” kidnapping African Americans off the street long fed a deep distrust of doctors and the medical establishment. Scientists (or Night Doctors) did, in fact, test drugs and new operating methods on slaves without using anesthesia, and medical schools bought African American corpses for research from the South in barrels labeled “turpentine.” These stories were also justified by other events that occurred before, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, where 600 Tuskegee men, 399 with syphilis, 201 without, were studied to see the effects of the disease. The doctors lied and told the men that they were being treated for “bad blood” and continued to study the disease’s effects, with no interest in curing them.

I think Skloot is trying to show the world who Henrietta Lacks really is, and all the important things her cells helped discover. I think she feels that the woman responsible for many medical advances should be known by more than her initials, that she wanted this remarkable woman to be recognized for the scientific advancements she indirectly helped create. She is also trying to expose the horrible mistreatment of African-Americans by the scientific community.

I absolutely loved this book. Skloot constantly goes back and forth between the time of Lacks and when she is researching her, but does it so well I could easily separate the two in my mind. She also would end chapters in places that would leave me wanting to know what happened next and described the characters so well that I could really picture them. It helped open my eyes to the injustice towards the African-American community in the past and the issues that continue in the present. I would give this book a 4.5 out of 5. I will, however, advise parents to only let your child read this if they’re older than 12. I’m not gonna be CommonSenseMedia on this, and freak out about every little detail. I’m just sayin’ you might not want your eight-year-old reading about incest and gynecological issues.

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