The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I just finished my second reading of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Although I had listened to it on audiobook when it was first published, I decided to read the actual book again when my daughter expressed an interest in reading it herself. I knew that she would have some questions on the drier science-technical portions of the book and wanted to be able to answer her within the framework of the book. We ended up discussing medical ethics, the effects of well-intentioned but still questionable actions, the idea of research ownership, and the importance of being well-informed when making medical decisions for yourself or your loved ones. While we both were upset by what was considered the “mental health treatment” and the sensationalism in the media that completely disregarded Henrietta Lacks’ family, we were also both encouraged by the hope for humanity and the pride in their mother’s contribution to medical science that her children were able to hold in their hearts.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is really three stories in one book. Initially began as a research project by Rebecca Skloot to satisfy her personal curiosity. After seeing the name “Henrietta Lacks” in her high school science class, she wondered why there was no information available about the woman whose cells were, and continue to be, used in so much research and have helped advance the medical field in areas including the polio vaccine, cloning, and gene mapping. The story of Henrietta’s life – her life as a black, female tobacco farmer in Virginia, her marriage to her cousin and the raising of her young children, and her diagnosis of cancer in the early 1950s – tells a sad story of a strong woman overwhelmed by the odds at a young age.
The second strand woven into the book spans many decades of medical and scientific research. Beginning the an explanation of the push in the 1940’s and 1950’s to grow human cells in lab culture, we follow Henrietta’s cells as they are harvested by George Gey, as they are freely shared among researchers, and as they travel the world and into space. Although her family is never reimbursed in any way for any of the research and development that was enabled with Henrietta’s cells, they still feel proud knowing that those advances would have been at least delayed if not improbably without the use of her cells.
The narrative of Henrietta’s life is told to us through the journey that Rebecca shares with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, as they unravel what was done with Henrietta’s cells and as they dig deeply into her family’s history. The more Deborah learns, the more she suffers emotionally, and yet she remains determined to discover the truth about her mother and eventually her sister as well.
“Colored” and “white” hospital wards. Medical ethics. Informed consent. Scientific discovery. Faith healing. Bioethics. Legal battles. All tied together in the story of one determined woman to learn the truth about the mother she never knew.

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