Henrietta Lacks was all but lost to history when science writer Rebecca Skloot became fascinated with her untold story. Determined to share the history behind the woman whose cells greatly impacted science and medicine, Skloot set out to make contact with the Lacks family. At the time, she had no idea the adventure she would be in for.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the Read More Science Book Club pick for February, which is Black History Month. Henrietta Lacks is the woman whose cancerous cervical cells, HeLa, have been growing and growing since her body died long ago. In her book, Skloot explores how Henrietta died and why the doctors ended up with her cells, why they are so extraordinary, and how they have changed cell research. She also investigates how the wide use of HeLa has impacted the Lacks family, who live in poverty and have not seen any of the money that HeLa cells made.
Although the book was published nearly a decade ago in 2010, its exploration of race and socioeconomic issues, as well as ethical concerns, are deeply relevant to our world today. The book resonates powerfully with readers who care about making sure women, especially women of color, are not lost to history. By bringing Henrietta Lacks to life, Skloot has ensured that Henrietta Lacks will no longer be reduced to her cells.
Skloot’s book is simultaneously an exciting narrative-driven expedition to uncover the story of Henrietta Lacks and help her family discover the truth behind everything that happened to her, as well as a biography of a young black woman. It’s a well-written, perfectly paced, and profound piece of journalism. Whatever good things you may have heard about this book, it’s even better than that when you read it.
There were chills crawling down my spine when I read the introduction and Skloot explains why, ever since she heard Henrietta Lacks’ name in a college lecture, she’s been fascinated with her story:
How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah [Henrietta’s daughter] would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing the book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.
At the end of the introduction, Skloot emphasized that, in many ways, her book transcended simply the story of Henrietta herself.
The Lackses challenged everything I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family – particularly Deborah – and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.
Ultimately, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a profound and intimate examination of the treatment of black people by scientists in the twentieth century, the ethics of research and medicine, and the celebration of an extraordinary woman whose immortal cells changed history. It’s a book that every science enthusiast should have a copy of on their shelf.