The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An accessible and fascinating work of creative non-fiction about the real woman behind a medical breakthrough and her family, that raises important issues about medical ethics, healthcare, race, class, money and more.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230748699

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In John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, in October 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five children, died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. However, a sample of her cancer cells taken the same year lived on, grew and reproduced. Often referred to as HeLa cells, cells with their origins in the original sample are still being used in medical and scientific research today, nearly sixty years on. Many of the scientific breakthroughs that have been made using HeLa cells are hugely profitable. But her children have spent their lives in low waged jobs and on welfare, unable to afford basic health insurance. Understandably they feel a lot of anger at this injustice.

When she first learned about HeLa on a college course aged 16, the teacher mentioned in passing that these cells came from a black woman, and she started to wonder then about the person behind the story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a sort of biography of a woman and her family, particularly her daughter Deborah Lacks, with whom Skloot spent a lot of time while researching the book.

Rebecca Skloot is a science journalist, with credits in the New York Times and Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, and a teacher of creative non-fiction. Her journalistic style makes the book very readable and accessible, and the term “creative non-fiction” is an excellent description of this book. It’s filled with anecdotes and apparently trivial accounts of the thoughts and feelings of people involved in the narrative – they were real people but they are often described as if they were characters in a novel. On the day Lacks’ cells were brought into the lab, the technician was keen to finish her tuna sandwich before she started work on them, and this level of detail is quite typical. She references lots of scientific journal articles, but her focus is on character.

She tries hard to give an account of Henrietta Lacks, but given that this is an account of the life of a poor black woman who left school several years before marrying and having her first child at 14, this account is based on an assortment of family memories (and some medical records). Her daughter Deborah, just a toddler when her mum died, is a much more vivid presence in the book, a middle aged woman living on welfare, struggling with a daunting range of medical conditions, and very keen to find out what happened to her mother. Skloot also tells the story of her relationship with Deborah, an uneasy friendship sometimes troubled by serious arguments, as Deborah finds it hard to trust this posh white woman. Skloot also interviewed lots of other relatives and those medical and research staff who were still alive (presumably in their 70s) when she began her investigation.

The story of Henrietta Lacks, her cancer cells and her family is a fascinating one, and this is a very good read. The author never claims to be objective, and I would not have wanted her to. She has set out to present some of the issues regarding science, ethics, race and class in the narrative, and to tell a story.

There is a feel of campaigning reportage to the book, but at the end it raises more questions than it answers. For example, should people and their families be able to receive a share of profits from donating their cells? It is hard to see how that would work in practice, in either public healthcare systems like the NHS or in the private, mostly profit driven system in the US. Skloot is not sure what the answers are, and in the system as it operates at present, I am not sure either. However, Henrietta Lacks’ story is one that needs to be told, and Skloot tells it well.

Thank you to Macmillan for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this interests you, the non fiction book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is worth reading. A brilliant novel about medicine set partly in the US is Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

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