One minute book review – The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)

I’m not a great reader and I never have been but I am envious of people that can get through a book a week. Rather than give up though I set myself the challenge of reading a book a month. Maybe one day I’ll ramp this up but for now it’s a big enough challenge! In March I read The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a non-fiction tale of a woman who died in 1951 but whose cells never did.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in 1950s America who developed a very bad case of cervical cancer. She went to the local John Hopkins hospital where she was misdiagnosed and given the wrong treatments. At first it seemed to work but the cancer came back and quickly killed her.

Before she dies though, the doctors took a sample of her cancer cells for study and discovered something amazing: They didn’t die! Where other cells usually only last a short while outside of the human body, Henrietta’s cells kept growing and growing. Soon the lab at the hospital had enough cells to ship out to other labs around America and the world for use in research and study.

While Henrietta’s family were struggling to get by in life, the scientists who had acquired the cells were making millions of dollars. These cells are still in use today and have resulted in a vaccine for polio as well as research into cancer and AIDS.

The book is told from two perspectives: The first is a historical account of what happened to Henrietta and her family and the journey of her cells and cell research as a result. The other perspective is from the author and her journey to discover what happened 50 years ago and how the Lacks family have been affected.

This seesaw between the past and the present is very effectively handled and you get a real sense of impact then and now of the violation of Henrietta’s body and how humans have been treated as guinea pigs throughout the ages. What makes this book really work though is despite all this it doesn’t make you come away thinking “scientists are evil”. You can understand what occurred from both sides and no-one is a real bad-guy.

It’s heavily science-based but if, like me, you are into that field then I do recommend this book.

For April I am reading through Jack Kerouac’s American classic On the road. I’ll post a review here when I am done.

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