Two weeks ago I started posting “throwback” posts–reviews of books I’ve read in the past that I’d still love to share with you. The first installment was Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, and this week’s book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I wrote about this book briefly when I shared six nonfiction books for your beach bag, but I thought it deserved some more attention!
Over the last few years, I’ve been really intrigued by all of the great new nonfiction books being published. From The Boys in the Boat (which I will never stop trying to convince people to read), to Dead Wake or The Terrible Speed of Mercy, I’ve loved venturing into the realm of nonfiction. This book was actually one of my first forays into nonfiction reading as an adult. This book was selected as Auburn’s common book back in 2012, and because I was helping teach a freshman lyceum course, I read it. I did not expect to enjoy this book. It’s about science and medical ethics, not topics I usually gravitate towards. I’m so glad I read it, though–it’s a fantastic work of nonfiction!
To give you a brief overview, this book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. In 1950, while seeking care at Johns Hopkins, cells were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent. She died in 1951. Unbeknownst to her and her family, however, the cells lived on.
In fact, her cells became the first “immortal line” of cells–cells that could be grown and reproduced in labs. Her cells were shipped all over the world, and companies began to manufacture her cells and sell them for a profit. Her cells unknowingly “contaminated” other cell cultures–scientists thought they had discovered a new line of immortal cells, but they were really seeing Henrietta’s.
All that sounds like a lot of science, and there is quite a bit of science in this book, but what I loved most was the incredibly personal nature of this story. Skloot builds close relationships with the surviving members of Henrietta’s family, and she shares their thoughts about the entire process of learning about their mother’s unwitting contribution to medicine. Her cells have been used in incredible ways–just check out this tiny list:
-the polio vaccine
-cancer and AIDS research
-effects of radiation
-techniques for cloning and in vitro fertilization
As you can see, Henrietta Lacks has contributed an enormous amount to modern science. If you’re interested in medical ethics or in anything that has to do with scientific innovations, this book is a great place to start!