Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot


384 pages

I’m not averse to non-fiction if it’s readable, but I admit I was skeptical about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks straight off the bat.  How can a book about science–specifically cells–be readable?  So I didn’t give the book a lot of consideration.  But then I saw The Immortal Life all over the blogosphere and I figured I’d better give it a chance.  Fast forward a few weeks later when I finally got a copy from my library (I was about #170 on the holds list).  The check out time for the book was only two weeks, so I figured I’d better get cracking.  Once I picked it up, I barely put it down. 

Henrietta Lacks was a poor lack woman who discovered she had cervical cancer when she was a young mother in her thirties.  Despite the radiation she went through, the cancer soon spread, killing Henrietta within a year and leaving her five children motherless.

That would have been the end of the story had a doctor not taken Henrietta’s cells and discovered that the cells continued growing and mutating furiously.  Since that time, Henrietta’s cells have been used for countless medical testing and experiments that have made serious advances in the world of medicine.  Unfortunately, her family had no idea that Henrietta’s cells were everywhere–their reactions were mixed when they discovered what was going on.  On the one hand, their mother was saving lives every day.  At the same time, they didn’t know exactly what was being done with her cells.  They felt that there mother may have been exploited by scientists while she was not being given proper recognition for the woman she was.  She had lost her human characteristics and was seen only as HeLa–the cells that were taken from her.  Not to mention the fact that the Lackses had no medical care and could not even afford the procedures that their mother’s cells had helped create.  None of the money made off of the HeLa cells were given to the Lackses.

Despite the subject matter of the book, The Immortal Life was surprisingly readable.  I read it in 3 days and even took it on car rides in the event that I may have a spare minute to read.  For those of you that are skeptical, I urge you to throw your caution to the wind and give this book a shot!

Other Reviews:

BermudaOnion’s Weblog

Linus’s Blanket

Sophisticated Dorkiness

Fizzy Thoughts

Medieval Bookworm

I borrowed this book from my local library.

6 Responses

  1. I found this story to be fascinating. I was frustrated with the treatment the Lacks received – all they needed was someone to sit down and talk to them. Thanks for linking to my review.

  2. I have the same concerns you did, but I’m still near the bottom of the library hold list… great review!

  3. I think surprisingly readable is the best description for this book. I usually hate science-y stuff, but I gobbled this one up!

  4. So glad you enjoyed it too! I’m not a science person either, so i think it was a pleasant surprise when it turned out to be so compelling. I read it amazingly fast considering how normal non-fiction goes!

  5. Everyone seems to like this one and the subject sounds fascinating! I’ll add it to my list!

  6. I think the best nonfiction is that kind that really grabs you and draws you in. I thought Skloot did an amazing job with that, really pulling out the characters and making them real, then throwing the science in when it served the story.

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