One HeLa of History

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Release Date: February 2012
Publisher: Random House | Crown
Pages: 370 pages
Source & Format: Library; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Amazon)
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 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 affects; 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 remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Thoughts on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died from a highly aggressive form of cervical cancer. She was young, African-American and the mother of five children. And over fifty years later, she lives on in the form of HeLa. 

When she visited the hospital to be diagnosed and treated, doctors removed a tissue sample of hers and used it try and cultivate a regenerating cell line. All previous tests had failed. Until Henrietta's. For some reason, her cells multiplied beyond the scientists' wildest imagination. Her cells led to many medical advancements and breakthroughs, but her family never knew that the sample had been taken in the first place. 

Rebecca Skloot was a young student when she first heard about Henrietta, who often wasn't even identified by the correct name. Years later, she poured her heart and soul into paying tribute to this woman who had such an impact on medicine but was largely unknown in the medical community.

The result is a book that kind of makes your stomach hurt. Questions of ethics, race, and class are at the heart of Henrietta's story. It's hard to read about people being treated as less than human, as if they don't have a right to know what is happening to their bodies, and as if it's all too complicated for them to understand so why bother trying to explain.

I'd seen this book on bestseller lists and bookstore displays, but I was never tempted to pick it up. Of all the things I could do with my spare time, reading about something science-related is not something I'd usually pick. I think science is cool and awesome if you get it, but I usually just don't.

I finally got it from the library one day on a whim, and I'm really glad I did. It was an incredibly hard book to read - not because of the way it was written, but because of what it revealed about our past. Skloot does a great job at telling a story and just weaving in the science as she goes along. It's not really a science-heavy book. Instead, Skloot focuses on the characters and their history. That made this a really fascinating read! 

When ethical questions arise, I think it can sometimes be hard to think about things in the context of real life. What made this book so fascinating is that the ethical questions of informed consent and a patient's rights aren't just abstract thoughts - you're reading about real people who lived this not that long ago.

It wasn't a perfect book - there were definitely a few things that I didn't love about the way Skloot chose to tell their story. But I'm really glad I took the time to read it! It's one that will have your mind working overtime as you ponder some pretty important issues.

So Quotable
"Like I'm always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can't do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different."


  1. augh I know what you mean about it being hard to read about this book, my stomach hurts just thinking of the treatment I imagined Henrietta received. It sounds like a thought provoking book.

    1. Yeah, it definitely made me stomach hurt at times! Very thought-provoking, but also reveals some hard things about our history. It was really well-written and interesting, so I can understand why it's on so many bestseller lists.

  2. I think this sounds like the type of book that would inspire some great discussions! (I also love the title of your blog post).

    1. Yes - it's definitely a discussable book! And glad you like the title haha :)

  3. YES! I love love love love this book. I'm totally not the science type at all but then just decided what the heck I am curious and someone recommended it and so I was like LETS DO THIS and also borrowed the copy I read from the library. It was so upsetting to read about how the Lacks family and Henrietta were treated. And oh my the ethical dilemmas -- like I guess I fall on the side of the fence where there should be patient consent re: cells and if these doctors are making hand over fist from those cells or companies, then the Lacks family should be getting a piece of the pie.


    I'm all heated up and it's only 8:50 a.m.

    1. Love that you were all heated up before 9 a.m. It's definitely the kind of book that could inspire some passionate discussion. And I loved how the science part was worked in without dominating the book or overshadowing the human side of what was going on. I think that balance was one of the strongest parts of the book!

  4. I'm still excited about getting to this one one day soon. I glanced at it AGAIN just this morning and actually told it SOON, BOOK because I roll that way.

    Working in the career that I've worked in (when I'm not at home with the critters), I've seen this "...and as if it's all too complicated for them to understand so why bother trying to explain." Many times. It's been angering, frustrating, and there have been times that I've left my area because I refused to take part in procedures that I did not feel a proper explanation was given to non-English speaking people. So, this book will probably fire me up, but that's okay. I can handle it!

    Also, I would love to read it and listen with audio at the same time. I'm thinking that would be a great choice for me.

    1. Kind of love you even more for talking to your books. You just don't even know.

      Yeah, I bet you're way for familiar with that attitude than you'd like to be. It was frustrating to read about, and I can only imagining have to work in an environment where it wasn't uncommon for people to treat others that way. I understand that it requires extra effort to make sure someone understands - but I can't imagine why you wouldn't make that a priority when it comes to someone's health and wellness.

      As you can see from April's comment above, she's read it and got heated up just thinking about the book all over again. So yes, you'll probably be fired up!

      I think the audio for this was one of the audios I kept seeing recommended on Audible. I think it has really good feedback as an audio! And I totally think you should read and listen :)


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