The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Review

immortal lifeOh, Henrietta Lacks, you are SO underappreciated for the advances your cells have made in science! Rebecca Skloot really expands on Henrietta’s and her family’s journey in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This nonfiction novel is a great story of the history of African American women and how their bodies and cells were used for advances in science without their knowledge.

Often mistaken in history books as Helen Lane, Henrietta Lacks was a 31 year old mother of five who developed a severe strain of cervical cancer and died. Doctors at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore had removed cancerous cells from her cervix without permission before her death. In 1951, when Henrietta died, there were no laws regarding patient consent before removing body tissues and using them for medical research. The doctors found that her cells [also known as HeLa] were able to survive in culture, the first human cells to do so!

She became immortal through her cells when they were traded and used by researchers the world over for medical research. Henrietta’s cells were directly responsible for the polio vaccine, cancer research, and AIDS research [among others].

But that is just the beginning of Henrietta’s story and the drama around cell research. Not only were her cells taken without consent, but Henrietta’s family had NO IDEA they were taken and being SOLD by medical researchers and medical companies. The Lacks family struggled through poverty and never saw a dime of the MILLIONS made from the distribution of Henrietta’s cells.

This novel is incredible. Rebecca Skloot really got to know Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter. Skloot really invested herself in telling the story of the HeLa strain. The novel brings up many good points for and against cell redistribution and consent. I found myself going back and forth with the legalities and rights of the Lacks family and the researchers’ desire to further their field.

INCREDIBLE novel. A truly touching and poignant piece of literature. A new favorite. God Bless the Lacks family!!

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