Book Reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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List Price: £8.99

 

Paperback: 431 Pages.

Published: 01 January 2011 by Pan

ISBN: 0330533444

EAN: 9780330533447

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta's family did not learn of her 'immortality' until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . .

Rebecca Skloot's fascinating account is the story of the life, and afterlife, of one woman who changed the medical world forever. Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

Reviews

5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars  by Anne

Compelling reading

This is an unusual book and an eye opening one. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. She had grown up in poverty, married a cousin, moved to the city and battled cancer. She suffered from an aggressive form of cervical cancer and did not have the money or the opportunity to recover. What makes her story different is that the cancer cells which were taken from her body continued to multiply and have eventually ended up in virtually every lab in the world as the basis for most research. They have been sold, adapted and allowed to multiply to an astonishing degree and Henrietta is now the means by which cancer is researched and almost certainly the reason for many cures being found.

Henrietta didn't know that cells were taken from her and how they were to be used and neither she nor her family have ever shared any financial benefit.

This biography is told from the point of view of the author who contacts Henrietta's family to try and tell their story. She makes contact with various members but most especially Henrietta's children who have made their own attempts to try and understand the contribution their mother made to medical research and to obtain some of the money which has been made by exploiting her body tissue. This makes the book sound very worthy and very complicated but it isn't. The author tells the story of Henrietta's life, her family's circumstances and then what happened to the cells. She does all this in a way that is easily understandable and the narrative is compelling.

This is really a work of social history tied up in a biography. The life that Henrietta and her family lived is one of extreme poverty and the author is clear about the effects that this has had from one generation to another. She is clear too about the racism which existed and which is still in place which allowed experimentation on the poor and especially those who were not white. Henrietta's family is still poor and her relations suffer from being unable to access medical care because they haven't the funds to pay for it while their mother's cells have made others rich. The author then talks about medical ethics in a completely accessible way and discusses the issues which this story and similar ones throw up. I must admit that I had never thought of any of this before I read this book and I found it all fascinating.

I was gripped by this book but shocked and saddened by the story too. Henrietta had a hard life and a difficult death. Her family has suffered too from poverty and racism. The author wasn't sure what should have happened and what should happen now and I have no idea either but I'm glad I read about it.

 
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