First line: There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape.
Synopsis (from the jacket cover): Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine.
Review: Just before the holidays, I was contacted by a former client who asked me to create discussion questions for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I was thrilled by the request since this work seemed to be on every “Best of 2010” list! Well, not only could I not put this down, but when I turned the last page my first thought was, “I think I just read the best book I’ll read in 2011!”
I had not sought this out previously due to the somewhat intimidating scientific premise. The last science course I took was 24 years ago and involved charting the stars! So, knowing only that Immortal Life involved cells was initially off-putting. However, the work itself is incredibly accessible and engaging. I never felt out of my league and Skloot deftly balances the narrative of the woman and her family behind the HeLa cells with the tremendous contribution to society the cells have had.
In fact, when I finished reading this, I quickly created a list of who to recommend this to (or buy as a gift) and the list included both genders, all ages, and a spectrum of interests. Honestly, I would recommend this to ANY book club — not only was it a fast, engaging read, but the issues presented would spark hours and hours of discussion. I loved creating discussion questions and hope either of my book clubs will agree to read it.
In the prologue, Skloot introduces a brief overview of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy:
“…her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity… [and] they helped with… the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization… Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers.”
Simply learning about why Henrietta’s specific cell was able to benefit science so tremendously would be fascinating to read. But the story of the woman who “provided” the cell, and especially of her family, is even more scintillating, as is the continuing medical debate about human research and who should benefit (monetarily) from tissue samples.
“But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime.”
So, for a myriad of reasons, I recommend this book without reservation — especially to book clubs. You will not regret letting Skloot and Henrietta — the person — into your life! Interested in winning a copy? Drop me a comment and I will choose a lucky winner by the weekend!