Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Book Addict Reviews: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Genre:  Non-Fiction, Science, Biography
Order Online:  
Author Info: Goodreads | Website
Rating: 4 stars   
Bought this book after reading a library copy.  

In A Nutshell:  
HeLa cells have been used to create drugs, research DNA, and many other scientific discoveries since the 1950s.  However, very few people knew much about Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind these cells.  Henrietta Lacks is one of the unsung heroes of scientific research, until Rebecca Skloot took up the challenge to tell Henrietta's story.  But this book is not only her story--it is the story of her family, of the researchers who have worked with her cells, of the changes in medical ethics since HeLa was first sold. 

I was not a science major, so I had never heard of HeLa or Henrietta Lacks.  I do not generally like science books because I feel like they will go over my head in technical jargon, so I am not sure what led me to read this book.  But I am so glad I did. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has become one of my favorite go-to books. I have listened to the audiobook during a couple of long driving trips. I have read the book itself a couple of times.  Each time I get something new out of the book.  

Rebecca Skloot uses a conversational style that makes even the very technical parts of the book accessible.  But this style made allowed her to blend the very technical aspects of the story almost seamlessly with the very human- or people-focused parts of the story.  And within the very human- or people-focused parts of the story, Rebecca Skloot has to tackle some very tough issues.  The Lacks family has been hurt in some very personal and profound ways by the death of Henrietta, some of the research done on her cells, and some of the people who have attempted to follow Henrietta's story.  At times, there were roadblocks to Rebecca's search for Henrietta's story--but then at times they were the whole reason the story comes to life and matters for the reader.

As much as the story of Henrietta Lacks affected me, I think the history of the changes and current concerns in the area of medical ethics really hit me more.  I feel like that is really what I took (and continue to take away each time I re-read this book).  That is the area that makes me look with a more critical eye at the interactions with my doctors and other medical professionals.  I do not mean to insinuate that I do not trust them--I wholeheartedly believe that most of them do what they do with honorable intentions the same way I believe most of the people who interacted with Henrietta and her family had honorable intentions.  But does that make what happened right?  I believe that is the issue that will still be under debate for years to come. 

Since I do not typically read science books, I do not know of another one that I could really recommend.  But I recently started another non-fiction book based on psychology research:


  1. I really enjoyed this one too. It doesn't sound like the link of book I'd like, but it's really gripping!

    1. I completely agree--I think Rebecca Skloot should be most commended for getting a bunch of people who had never had an interest in science or knew anything about HeLa to read this book and learn. That is quite an accomplishment.