Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Pages: 369 (paperback)
Rating: 8 out of 10
Source: Borrowed from a friend/Checked out from the library
Date Completed: October 28, 2012
I had been wanting to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skoot ever since I saw a segment about the story on CBS Sunday Morning. I was so excited when my book club selected it as the August selection. I had many intentions of finishing the book in time for the meeting, but I underestimated how hard it would be to find time to read with an infant. Before the book club meeting, I borrowed a copy of the book from a friend. After the meeting, I was checking the book out from the library and had to be patient as I ran out of renews and had to share with other people on the wait list.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. I like the combination of science and personal narrative. The contrast between the scientific advancement and contribution of Ms. Lacks to science with the dire conditions of her family is striking. At our book club discussion, one point of contention was whether or not the Lacks family deserved special treatment because of Ms. Lacks cells being used without her consent. The group was divided. Another criticism, by some in the book club, is that the author spent too much time on the personal narrative and it was hard to read.
My take on those two points is that the book is structured in a way to show the complexity and inequity of how advances in science are applied (or not) to various members of society. The author does a wonderful job of showing how part of someone's body (her cells) can contribute so much to advancing science while the absence of that person from her children's lives can cause so much sadness. I enjoyed reading about the family, even though it was so painful and sad at times. The book is unique in that you get your science, technical fix and also get a story. I wish that there was a happy ending, but, alas, real life does not often end neatly.