Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

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. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. – Goodreads.

Holy. Moly.

I borrowed this book from my local library and finished it within 2 days. Literally, it’s that big of a page turner!

I’m not going to lie, I know nothing about Science and Biology – I mean, I studied it back in school but it was never my favourite subject. So, naturally, since leaving high school, I don’t have interest in learning about (medical) science.

However, despite this book being based upon biology and science (don’t worry, there’s more dramatic events than pages of pages similar to your bio textbook), I was drawn to it because of the history. I knew nothing about HeLa cells. I was drawn to the history, to this woman named Henrietta Lacks and what was so great about her cells. I was drawn into the 1950s racism issues and how they treated “coloured” people in the past.

Everything that drew me to this book was nothing related to Science, so don’t fear for those who were on the same boat me.

This book makes you feel stuff a normal book normally wouldn’t do. This book made me feel grateful for HeLa cells, it made me angry for the actions Hopkins as done, it made me sympathetic for the Lacks family.

It’s amazing how so many great things came from HeLa cells/Henrietta but it’s such a shame for what the family endured. It sort of breaks your heart to know someone of African descent can be taken advantaged just like that.

I thought Skloot did a wonderful job tracking down and perusing the family for interviews. I loved the pictures and the updates she provided on each character she had written about in the book. These pictures are just regular family pictures but to know their story makes the photos looked… haunted. It’s raw.

I loved the book. Skloot flipped from history and present times and follows a great timeline. She shares intimate details of the family (with their consent). And for those who aren’t great with science, Skloot breaks it down to the most simplest way to understand the cells. It’s raw and real.

I highly recommend this book. Not because your body was once injected with HeLa cells, but to know the woman behind it and her story and tragedies endured just to discovered these cells that gave us the vaccines and knowledge we know of now.

It has nothing to do with science or history but rather to acknowledge who Henrietta Lacks was and her contribution to modern science. Without her cells, a lot of what we know now wouldn’t be available or otherwise be different.

It’s a fantastic read, a quick read that keeps you hooked on pages after pages.

Rating: 5/5

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  1. my biology teacher actually recommended this book to me, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet! I'm going to try get it as soon as possible because it sounds like a great book!


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