I’ve read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks twice. The first time was for the Purdue University Boiler Gold Rush orientation program’s Common Reading Program. In fact, my copy even has a fun letter to “New Boilermakers” in the front explaining why this book was chosen and the university’s hopes and expectations for the students. I was a part of the senior volunteer leadership for the program, known as the Student Orientation Committee, and we had the opportunity to actually meet Skloot when she gracious came and talked to students about the book. (Look! She signed my copy!)
My first impressions were not so favorable to a review. I found the science boring and the plot line disengaging. It wasn’t the right time for me to read this book.
Flash forward five years later, and I picked it up again because it was chosen as a Dysautonomia Support Network Book Club pick. It was my turn to lead, and I was a little hesitant to read a book I knew I didn’t like. Man oh man, was I mistaken. I really enjoyed this book the second time around, and found myself investigating more and more about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa. The discussions in our weekly book club meetings were engaging and lively, always leaving us with more to talk about than we had time to discuss.
The book is told in three parts, Life, Death, and Immortality, and is not told in chronological order. Skloot skips back and forth between the past and the present, allowing readers to see the effects of the past on the family and our futures.
Henrietta’s cells were taken from her without her knowing or her consent during a hospital stay for what turned into cervical cancer. While the cancer killed Henrietta at the age of 31, her cells continued to live in a petri dish in a research laboratory. The cells, named HeLa, continued to multiply and grow, rendering themselves the perfect specimen for controlled experimentation. They were named the first human “immortal” cells.
Henrietta and her family had no idea that her cells would make such a positive contribution to science and medicine. Scientists had no idea who to credit the cells to, nor did they know they were taken without her consent. When Henrietta’s family learns about HeLa, they begin a battle where ethics, race, and medicine collide.
The impact HeLa cells have had on our world history is astounding. She reaches places you never realized: everywhere from cloning to patenting cells to Marvel characters. Many of our medical advances we would not have, if not for the cells secretly taken from Henrietta.
This book left me completely amazed at . . . well, everything! All of the contributions her cells have made to science is astonishing, and the fact that her family had no idea is upsetting. I wish there was a bit less "science" in the novel, and more about her and her family. However, I understand that the science is a part of her story, and must be told because it is a part of Henrietta's legacy. I wish I had learned more about this before the book, and I am afraid that without this book many will be in the same situation. I haven’t had a chance to watch the HBO adaptation with Oprah, but I think it looks like a winner.
My book club discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks left a lasting impression on me, so much so that we continue to refer back to the questions this book raises. David Eagleman said,
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
The first two we don’t have much control over, the third one we do. Henrietta Lacks will never completely die. Just like her cells, she is immortal. She had no idea she would have such an impact on millions of people’s lives. Which leaves me with the question that still burns in my mind from this book: What kind of legacy would you like to leave?
There is so much more I could talk about with this book, but I'll leave it at that. If you do pick it up, leave a comment here with what you thought about it and if Henrietta has shown up in unexpected places like she did for Skloot and for me.
TL/DR: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shows us the dark history behind our medical advances and asks us to question what we consider ethical and what we can just write of as a part of science.
Rating: 4/5 stars
The way to Alexandra's heart is through a great book recommendation.