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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reviewed by Brittany Jackson, Class of 2004

July 9th, 2010 · No Comments · Biography, Non-fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a must read. Skloot takes a complex subject and simplifies it to its simplest form, without becoming condescending. She captured the heart and the essence of two sides of a life, of a process, of a science, and of a family.

Skloot tells of how Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from Maryland, found a tumor in her cervix in 1951 and went to Johns Hopkins to have it examined. It was something the doctors at Johns Hopkins had never seen before and they cut a sample without her knowledge, sending it to Dr. George Gey, who was working on finding ways to grow cells. This was the first time cells replicated themselves or grew, and the cells have continued to replicate themselves over and over, continuing to grow today. This phenomenon is something that most scientists today have never encountered. Scientists still are not sure how or why these cells continue to grow at such large rates, though there is some speculation about how the types and combination of HPV virus and syphillus that Henrietta had may have contributed to the continued growth and also to Henrietta’s rapid decline. It has been estimated that all of the HeLa (an abbreviation used in certain research circles) cells currently on earth could wrap around the earth three or more times.

Skloot also explains, Henrietta Lacks’ family’s feelings towards the situation, in her book, and how miscommunication after miscommunication led to feelings of resentment, betrayal, and fear from the family of any outsider asking about Henrietta. Skloot also gives details that her book, and the long process of writing it, seems to have helped the Lacks family understand more about what happened to Henrietta’s cells and what they have been used for.

It is a story of race, education, love, compassion, science, sociology, and so much more. I could not put this book down once I started reading it. This book was powerful and incredibly interesting. Even if you are not a science buff (which I most certainly am not!) you will be drawn to the power of love and the injustice of our world sometimes.

Find this book at a library near you.

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