Friday, October 7, 2011

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I first learned of this book while working for Armstrong Atlantic State University's Lane Library.  At the time, it was under consideration as the university's next common read.  The library kept a copy on reserve for faculty members to preview.  Although I wanted to read it, it was never on the shelf.  That's when I knew it must be good. 
The story is much about Henrietta Lacks as it is a story about the author Rebecca Skloot's journey to bring the book to life.  Before this book, Henrietta Lacks was an extremely obscure figure from the past.  Yet, in amazing turn of events, she touched so many lives.  Her cells have been to space, blown up in nuclear testing, and helped discover the polio vaccine.  All this, as her family remained poor and unable to afford health care. 
Henrietta was a mother, wife, cousin and friend.  She was also the source of the HeLa cells--the first immortal line of human cells capable of being  sustained in culture.  Henrietta, an African American woman in 1951 visited her doctor at Johns Hopkins University where doctors removed a tissue sample which would lead to hundreds of scientific discoveries. Henrietta would soon die from the rapidly spreading cervical cancer, but her cells would live on.  
Yet, the existence of these cells was unknown to her family, who were never asked consent for use of the tissues or were made knowledgeable of their value.  Today HeLa sells are a standard catalog item for many lab supply companies.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an excellent example of an interdisciplinary read.  The reader learns of the biology of cell culture, but also the legal and ethical debates that accompany such research.  Skloot artistically interviews the personal element of the Lacks family, past and present creating  a very strong personal element.  Naturally race, historical context and journalistic research methods enter the picture as well.  
When it comes to non-fiction, I am naturally a slow reader.  Yet the story compelled me to read further, ask questions and strive to understand the portions that were out of my comfort zone.  The last few chapters were a huge pay off and made the effort completely worth it. Loved this book and would strongly recommend it to students of any subject. 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksBiographies & Memoirs)