The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

This book has been whispering “Read Me, Read Me” to me for quite a while now but I only succumbed when a bookish friend with similar reading tastes wholeheartedly recommended it as a must-read.  My inital reluctance was partly due to the “science bit”.  I guess I was suspicious of how a non-fiction book about cell biology could possibly draw me in.  Therefore I was very pleasantly surprised to be completely drawn into the life of Henrietta and her family and all the medical advances which were her legacy. 

Henrietta died an extremely painful death not long after being diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer.  Radiotherapy was not the fine tuned treatment which exists today and Henrietta experienced very severe side effects whilst trying to keep the gravity of her condition secret from her family.  She was a wife and mother of five, one of whom was only a little baby when she died.   Cells excised from Henrietta’s cervix became the first cells to survive growth in laboratory conditions and thus became the progenitors of HeLa cells which are commonly used in biological research to this very day.  HeLa cells became an extremely effective research tool in the manufacture of a Polio vaccine which revolutionised society – I remember Polio was a frequent scourge of my parents’ generation, an affliction which traumatised so many families and to think that we have Henrietta to thank for being part of the solution.   HeLa cells have also been used in research to develop drugs to combat AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and many other ailments.

However, there is a very human side to this story too, something which some medical professionals perhaps fail to see, hence the recent, long-overdue phenomenon of advanced communication skill courses for consultants.  Henrietta’s family were not informed that her cells had been used for research purposes and did not discover this until 20 years after her death.  Hence the whole focus turns to ethics and Skloot handles this sensitive subject very well, detailing the development of  “informed consent” whereby patients give permission for any part of their bodies to  be used for medical research.  Such advances in bio-ethics were but a distant dream for the Lacks family as they struggled to understand how Henrietta “lived” on and was indeed “immortal”.  The irony is that, as the Lacks family struggled to pay for adequate medical care, the sales of HeLa cells generated billions of dollars for the companies which grew and sold them.  Had “informed consent” law been around in Henrietta’s time, would she have given her consent?  Would medical research have been set back if she hadn’t?  Should Henrietta’s family have had a share in the profits generated by the sale of HeLa cells?

Skloot wisely does not attempt to answer these questions but she paints a balanced picture of events where race, patriarchal medical professionals, business, profit and family all play a part.  I can see how “scientists” might not value this multi-toned approach but for the “ordinary” reader, this book is a wonderful example of creative non-fiction, presenting the whole picture and thus providing plenty of material for discussion.  This is an extremely important book as it uncovers some of the smoke and mirrors of medical research and shows the human face behind what we appreciate as major medical advances in our time.  An extremely readable account and I am very grateful that Rebecca Skloot spent ten long, at times, frustrating, years finding the pieces to complete the HeLa jigsaw.

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13 Comments

  1. Ceri says:

    Fab review! I nearly bought the book today but was good and walked away (I have enough to read at the moment!!). Not sure I’ll be so good next time I see it lol :)

  2. admin says:

    Ah, Ceri, one can never have too many books to read! ;-) It is very reasonably priced too, not that I wish to tempt you any more….

  3. Mrs Mac says:

    Glad you found it worth reading Treez. Every so often there’s a good one around, isn’t there?

  4. Jessica says:

    I am halfway through this at the moment and I agree with you pretty much. As a piece of creative non-fiction it it very entertaining and informative.

  5. admin says:

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying it too, Jessica. One influential reviewer (not a blogger!) thought that Skloot was too intent on being a heroine in the story herself and was very intrusive but I didn’t have that impression at all…

  6. admin says:

    Thank you, oh bookish friend/fiend ;-) for convincing me to read it. Pleased to say there are plenty of wonderful books TBR! :-)

  7. I’ve just finished this one and hope to write my review soon. I listened to the audio book and thought it added a wonderful extra dimension. I wish the questions you ask about medical research had been investigated a bit more, but I did enjoy this one and am pleased it has brought the subject into the public arena.

  8. admin says:

    Jackie, who narrated the audio book version? Yes, I admit that my head is full of questions now about the legislation regarding human tissue but it seems to be a minefield. I wondered especially at the decision taken by the US courts with regard to the cell line of John Moore. I’m all in favour of medical research but this business of not informing the patients is frankly quite disturbing and rather patronising.

  9. JoAnn says:

    Wonderful review! This was my favorite nonfiction read last year, and I agree the Skloot did a fabulous job presenting the various aspects of the issue… and was VERY wise in not trying to answer the questions raised. Wonder if she has decided on her next project.

  10. admin says:

    I think we could be waiting quite a while, JoAnn, considering it took her 10 years to gather all the information for this project. I’ve been spurred onto looking up quite a few articles on bio-ethics thanks to Henrietta and there are so, so many different views/philosophies – made my head buzz!

  11. Elisabeth says:

    I found this book to be depressing. It is sad that Henrietta’s family was so badly treated and the abuses they had to endure. It’s commentary about the health care situation in this country and how little control we have over what is taken from our bodies has not changed as much as it could.

  12. lovelytreez says:

    Jackie at Farmlane Books linked to a more up to date article about how the Lacks family are faring now which does put a more optimistic twist on things http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/books/05lacks.html?_r=3&src=tptw

  13. [...] Rebecca Skloot’s website Interview with Skloot (Wellcome Trust) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks elsewhere: SomeBeans; Savidge Reads; Take Me Away; Lovely Treez Reads. [...]

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