The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skoot
Crown Publishers, 2010. 369 pgs. Biography
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with ovarian cancer while still a young mother with 5 small children. In 1951, as a poor African American migrant farmer in Baltimore, the best medical care available to her was at the clinic at Johns Hopkins. Before her death and without her knowledge, a sample of cells from her tumor was collected. These cells proved to be the “first immortal human cells” and were cultured and shared with scientists throughout the world. They allowed researchers to make discoveries leading to the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, and many other important medical discoveries.
Many issues are brought to the surface in the telling of Henrietta’s life, her death, and the continuing ‘immortality’ of her cells. Race relations, medical ethics, and even religious belief are all questioned and examined by the author as she searches for the truth and investigates the lives that are continuing to be touched by this vibrant woman decades after her death. This book has received a great deal of success and appears on multiple “Best of 2010” lists. While the story is undoubtedly intriguing, I found myself tiring of the time spent with the Lacks family and wishing more of the book followed the science surrounding the cells and their use in research.