Reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Review

I got a knot inside me.


It was with those few words that Henrietta Lacks’ life changed forever. During a visit to Johns Hopkins hospital and a routine biopsy, her cancer cells were collected in an effort to grow cells outside the human body. Countless numbers of similar samples failed to grow in laboratory conditions, but Henrietta’s cancer cells were different. Henrietta’s cancer was aggressive and did not respond to treatment, but her cells, named HeLa, became immortal.

The HeLa cell line became famous and the center of valuable scientific research. Vaccines, drugs, cancer treatments, and DNA research, to name a few, all used HeLa. But who was Henrietta?

Rebecca Skloot searches for that answer, but does she succeed in serving Henrietta justice?


I have been dying to read this book. I came across HeLa in biology textbooks, found the name in researching cancer, vaccines, drug trials,  and repeatedly found HeLa any time new cell research was conducted. Everything from cosmetics to new drug therapies centers around HeLa cells.

Even when researching, I always had trouble finding information about Henrietta. There must be more. There has to be a record of the woman the cells came from, somewhere. Her cells are still living in laboratories all over the world even today, but who was Henrietta.

I gave this book 2 stars on Goodreads, though. Why?

Well let’s weigh the Pros & Cons.

Pros:

  • The information was easy to understand.
    • Cell research is a complicated field and hard for any layman to understand when full of large scientific jargon. I was unsure whether or not I was going to have to stop every few pages to look up a term in the dictionary, but Skloot did a very good job at making science understandable.
  • I learned something! Yay!
    • I had no idea Henrietta’s cells were used for so many things. Her cells were sent to space to observe what would happen to a person on a cellular level. Her cells are the reason there are vaccines, like the HPV vaccine, available for the public today. Her cells are used in researching new cancer treatments and all kinds of drug therapy.
  • It does not assume that everyone knows about HeLa and instead takes the time to explain.
    • I had prior knowledge, although not much, about Henrietta’s cells, but I could have read this book without that knowledge and everything still make sense.
  • It was a decent length.
    • This book wasn’t too long or too short. I have a large amount of reading in school right now (Thank you Linguistics) and I don’t have as much time to devote to personal reading as I like. And if it weren’t for the holidays, I would have finished it even quicker, but the length is just right at about 370 pages (including the extra notes in the back for more research).
  • For a human interest story, this one was worth reading.
    • It wasn’t trying to hard to tell the story of Henrietta’s life or her family. It wasn’t playing the pity card and was simply telling the facts. Because it was straightforward and not trying to gain my sympathy for the family, I felt for the family.
  • It is an interesting story.
    • Without Henrietta’s cells, science as we know it today could be drastically different. Her cells were used in making the polio vaccine that lead to widespread inoculation of a debilitating disease. Studying her cells lead to the discovery of chromosomes and chromosome abnormalities. That is not to say scientists would not have eventually made these discoveries without her cells, but HeLa sped up the process.
  • It has photos.
    • I am all for reading “adult” books that are nothing but words because it makes my imagination kick in. I imagine the setting and what the people look like, but with a book like this, I appreciated the photos. Rebecca Skloot describes the family members she comes across, but the photos add a nice touch to the story.
  • There really is no other book like it.
    • Google “Henrietta Lacks” or “Books about Henrietta Lacks” and tell me how many you find other than this one. There aren’t many and at the time of publication, this was one of its kind. That is a tough wall to break through and with this story, it needed to be done.
  • It discusses ethical issues in medicine that are important even today.
    • Who has rights to tissues, the patient or the doctor? What if those tissues are removed during a biopsy? Are cancerous? Are non-cancerous? Do I have the right to any money gained by scientists that use my discarded tissues? Is there an issue of personal security with patient tissues being used without permission? This story really brings to mind the fact that consent in the 50s is not what it is today and yet today, there is still a debate on who owns the rights to these kinds of tissues once they are removed from a patient’s body.

Cons:

  • One of the biggest issues I have with the book, and the reason it only received 2 stars, is because it doesn’t follow through with what it promises.
    • It is titled, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I was expecting to learn more about Henrietta. I appreciate the detail that went into discussing the research conducted on her cells and the advances in science that have been made, but I still don’t feel like I know who Henrietta was.
  • The timeline jumps around, a lot.
    • It starts in present day, then bounces back to the 1950s speeding forward again to present day, so forth and so on. There were times that I was a little lost on the timeline, but luckily there is a bullet point timeline in the back of the book that helps make sense of things. But those few pages could have all been avoided, if the story had followed the original timeline of the story as it unfolded.
  • The story was more about Rebecca Skloot than Henrietta Lacks, another big issue.
    • I feel like there were more pages and chapters that followed her around in the effort to discover more about Henrietta’s life. There were many instances of her hanging out in her Holiday Inn hotel room with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, discussing the research that she was doing than there was actually sharing of the research and information found.
  • I learned more about Henrietta’s surviving family members than herself.
    • I understand that Henrietta’s life was nothing glorious, but it was important. I wanted to know more about this woman, and yet I am still left with questions. So much of the story was centered around Deborah than it was Henrietta. I guess that is the problem with writing a story about someone who lived in a time where everything wasn’t documented on social media, but this woman contributed to modern science and I wanted to know her.
  • The photos are lumped together in the middle of the book.
    • I wish the photos were incorporated more into the story than just lumped together in the middle, but that really isn’t too big of a con.
  • There was a huge scene about not mentioning “that word.”
    • If you want to get someone’s undivided attention, tell them they can’t see, say, or do something. There is a whole scene between Rebecca and Deborah in a hotel room (of course) with Deborah being adamant about Rebecca not using “that word” in writing about her sister Elsie. “You can’t use that word,” “Don’t write that word,” “You better not use that word,” and so on. It got my attention immediately, and, of course, I want to know the word! But, Rebecca stays true to her promise and does not use “that word” when speaking of Elsie (which became a personal pro on the author – I respect that she kept her word).

So in the end, I was a little disappointed in the book’s approach to telling Henrietta’s story, thus the 2 stars. I enjoyed reading the bits and pieces about her life it contained. I was sucked in at the prospect of learning about her life and what it was like growing up on a tobacco farm and just being a part of the past. The treatment of African American women is not what it is now, and I think we still have a lot to learn about how they were treated in retrospect.

It is from history that we learn what was done right and what doesn’t need to be repeated and the historical aspect of this book is what hooked me.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the amounts of research conducted using HeLa cells and did not at any point feel like the author was talking over me or using over complicated words.

There was just something missing… Henrietta.

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