Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

As an English and History major, I was not particularly inclined to read a book about science. However, one of my Goodreads friends read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give the book a chance. I found that I not only understood the book’s content, but I also couldn’t put it down.

The book discusses the cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins took from an African American woman with cervical cancer (Henrietta). These cells, called HeLa, grew successfully in culture. In fact, they grew so successfully that scientists all over the world wanted to use them in experiments. Among other medical advances, HeLa cells helped develop the polio vaccine, identify chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome, and test the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other drugs.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset--HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset–HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

While Henrietta’s cells are an important aspect of the story, author Rebecca Skloot also sought to find out who Henrietta Lacks was. The reader discovers that many of Henrietta’s children wanted to know the same thing, since most were very young when she died. Despite her illness, Henrietta continued to cook and clean for her husband, neighbors and family. Her oldest son remembered that she was fair, but had strict rules about where her children could play.

Most interestingly, the book makes the reader think about how patients, particularly African Americans, were treated in the early 1950s. Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins because it was one of the few hospitals that agreed to treat African Americans who couldn’t pay their bills. Of course, Johns Hopkins had separate entrances for “white” and “colored” patients. Henrietta and her family had no idea that white doctors were taking samples of her cervix for their private research. Would Henrietta would have been treated any differently or given more information about the samples being taken if she was white? These are questions that the author allows the reader to decide.

During Skloot’s research, however, it is evident that the actions of Johns Hopkins researchers created distrust between Henrietta’s family and any white person who inquired about HeLa cells. For years, members of the Lacks family refused to talk to Skloot. Then one or two of them decided she could be trusted and they began sharing stories about Henrietta. Even after trust had seemingly been established, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah would accuse Skloot, who was paying for her research via credit cards and student loans, of secretly working for the hospital. Then Deborah would call Skloot as if nothing had happened and research would resume.

I finished this book with knowledge of the lengths to which scientists sometimes go to conduct their research. I also felt and better understood the distrust of some African Americans toward white people, particularly in the South. Finally, I admired Skloot’s determination to interview Henrietta’s family members and even scientists who were often less than enthusiastic about talking to her. This book will make people think about the American medical system’s treatment of patients of all colors. Highly recommended.

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