Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Biography, Science
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2010
Source: I purchased this book

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31 from cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where it was discovered that she had an amazingly aggressive tumor and was in agonizing pain. While she lay dying, some of her cells, both healthy and diseased, were extracted from her for further use in research. This was done without her knowledge or permission, or the knowledge of her family. This was actually common procedure at the time. At the time, permission was not required.

Cells from other patients had not worked. Most cells will divide for a certain number of times and then die. But for some reason, Henrietta’s cells were amazingly vital and survived. Her cells were dubbed “HeLa”. HeLa cells were the first human cell line to prove successful in vitro, in test tubes or Petri dishes , which has had profound impact on medical research. For example, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to test the first polio vaccine. They have also been used in cancer and AIDS research. HeLa cells were dubbed “immortal” because they could be divided an infinite number of times. They still exist, in various forms, today.


Henrietta’s family knew nothing about the HeLa cells until many years later. Here is where the story gets even more complicated: the original doctor, George Gey, seems to have had no bad motives. He was completely dedicated to medicine, and simply wanted the cells for further research. Gey freely donated the cells to other researchers. However, it was other companies who obtained HeLa cells who made money off of products invented because of the cells. Henrietta was forgotten or unknown to most of the scientists and researchers. While some corporations made millions, Henrietta’s family, while proud that her cells have helped countless others, have remained poor.

The whole idea of medical ethics is enormously complicated. Was racism involved? Was it because Henrietta was poor and black? Or was it simply in the interest of science and medicine? What about the companies who benefitted financially from the research? Are cells still harvested today without permission? The answers are not as simple as they may seem.

This book studies medical ethics, family history, racism, and poverty. Author Rebecca Skloot does a fine job in researching and setting forth her arguments. This book was obviously a real labor of love and she is passionately devoted to the subject. Skloot became so involved with the family that she set up a foundation to help them: The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

If I have any quibbles about this book, it is that it is a bit too long. I did make my husband read the book. It is not at all the sort of book he usually reads, but he is a scientist and he found it fascinating.

I also highly recommend this book. It is not light reading, but it is undeniably intriguing and important.

Henrietta’s cells have helped many scientists and researchers develop new ways of dealing with disease. In this way, Henrietta Lacks has become truly immortal.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

October’s Bright Blue Weather

It’s October and I love this weather! I’m always sad to see summer go, but I do love the fall! It is beautiful outside, and the trees are slowly becoming more colorful.

I’ve been very busy this month: I’ve been cleaning out a huge storage unit and my husband and I have been fighting over what to keep and what gets donated or thrown out. It is our own version of “Storage Wars”. Yuuuuup!

I have literally thousands of books in storage, and now many of them are being donated to Goodwill. It is always wrenching to give up good books, but I can’t afford to keep wasting my money on a storage unit and we only have a two-room apartment. Besides, I have a Kindle now and don’t need so many physical books! It’s time to clean out.

My husband doesn’t have books to donate, but he is obsessed with tools and computer supplies, especially cable cords. He literally has dozens of them, and he needs to give them up! But he has as hard a time giving them up as I have in giving up books.

I’m also catching up on magazine reading! I have many, many magazines:

These are only a few of the magazines I’ve been hoarding (yes, now it’s like an episode of “Hoarders”. They’re also in the bathroom, the bedroom, and hidden in boxes.

Why do I have so many magazines? My mother-in-law subscribes to People (a true guilty pleasure — it’s like chocolate), and gives me her copies after she finishes reading them. I also live near a dollar store that has pretty current issues of good magazines for only a dollar!

Anyway, I’m reading magazines constantly and then recycling them. I really love magazines, especially decorating, gossip, and writing magazines.

I’ve also been reading books and am busy writing reviews. I am also writing a book that I want to published next year.