Reader Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reader Review: Reading non-fiction can be just as entertaining as fiction.

Title:                 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author:             Rebecca Skloot

Version:            Paperback

Genre:              Nonfiction

Publisher:         Crown Publishing

Reviewer:         Stewart

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a nonfiction book that engages the reader as grippingly as a good novel. Skloot was sixteen when she heard about HeLa cells, which in 1951 had been grown from the cancer of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. The cells had the unexplained ability to replicate in tissue culture “forever,” and they provided the basis for thousands of important scientific studies during the following decades. Yet nothing was known of Henrietta Lacks. This story stayed with Skloot through college and graduate school and led to her 10-year research for this book–the story not only of Henrietta and her family, but also of the doctors who treated her, the scientists who developed and used her cells, the journalists who, during the 1970’s, sensationalized her story without regard to the privacy or feelings of the family, and the impact of all of this on family members.

Henrietta and her family were poor and black, deprived of education, work, and other opportunities in Baltimore, where Jim Crow in the 1950’s was still strong. Most hospitals did not offer care to black patients, and Henrietta received “charity” care in the “colored” sections of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Medical care was primitive by today’s standards and medical research was even more so. Communication between doctors and patients was governed by the notion that the all-powerful doctor was obliged to tell patients only what he felt was in the patient’s interest. “Informed consent” did not cross the minds of early clinical researchers, who conducted many potentially harmful studies on patients without their knowledge. Henrietta received standard radiation treatment (with severe side effects) and died 6 months after her diagnosis. Her medical care was not unusual; it was an example of how bad care was for everyone, especially poor people.

But Skloot doesn’t stop there. She describes medical progress (through the lens of HeLa cellular research) during the following years, as well as the efforts to improve communication with patients and their families, including Henrietta’s family.

The stories are complicated, but Skloot writes with feeling and an eye for detail that keeps the different narratives lively and connected. For me the book was a page-turner.

WD’s Editorial Tip: This is a good example of a nice balance of medical research and storyline so the reader learns about the topic at hand, but can also take away the hard lessons learned about the people in the story.