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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Book Review
Why It's a Best Seller
Rebecca Skloot should be commended for the work she did getting the story of Henrietta Lacks and her amazing contribution to modern medicine to the public. Though it took her ten years, Ms. Skloot did for the Lacks family what no other person cared or dared to—put a human face on the science of cell study. Like Henrietta’s cells, Ms. Skloot took an amazing journey and told an amazing story.
The Outer Story
Rightly so, the big story details how Ms. Skloot gathered the information from and about the family that gave science the Hela cell, taken from the cancer of the family matriarch, Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasants). Their story is heart breaking. It includes Henrietta’s painful death from cervical cancer probably exacerbated by the syphilis her gallivanting husband, Day brought home. Henrietta’s elder daughter’s story adds to the pathology since she is born retarded and eventually dies at 15 in a hospital that helped give mental institutions their notorious reputations. The final indignity involves Henrietta's younger daughter, Deborah (Dale), who helps Skloot gather information. She is so haunted by her mother’s cell contribution that she suffers a mental breakdown from which she never fully recovers. Because the Lacks family was kept in the dark concerning what happened to Henrietta before her death, because they did not find out that scientists were using her cells until 20 years later, and because a scientist misinformed them when she came to gather cultures from other family members, no one in the family trusts anyone who is trying to gather information, which makes Ms. Skloot's honest attempt at telling Henrietta's story very difficult. The family believes they should be compensated for Henrietta’s cells since companies began selling them for profit without their knowledge or consent, so at first they think Ms. Skloot is someone else trying to take advantage of them.
The Inner Story
While telling the Lacks’ story, Ms. Skloot deftly weaves in the history of the Hela cell (named for the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names) and the scientific discoveries that come as a result of it being the first cell scientists were able to grow in their lab (Polio vaccine, a direct result). She also details several scientific studies done on humans who did not know they were subjects in experiments (The Tusghegee Experiment), which prompted the US laws requiring informed consent. Ms. Skloot gives some description of the space between the rock and hard place research institutions find themselves in regards to paying people to study their cells and the commercialization of the same. She details some court cases where people have sued for payment for use of their tissue samples in research or for removal from tissue banks. This part of the story, while stirring up anger for the abuse that is reported, leaves readers with many questions as to how future laws will impact both participants and researchers.
Because The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is non-fiction, it is not a fast read, but Ms. Skloot’s writing style and the book’s formatting makes it easy to understand. To assist readers in clarifying people and events, she includes closing chapters that give information on where the main characters are now, who all the notables are, and a timeline of work with Hela cells and laws governing research. The book has several pages of notes and a reading group guide. This is an engrossing book, both for the human story and the research practices it reveals. Both my thumbs up!