1 September 2018 Susannah

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

As someone who struggled with science classes at school, I rarely read books about science, but was recently fascinated by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks, who I had never even heard of, seems to have been one of the world’s most influential women.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

She died young from cervical cancer, but cells taken from her tumours had extraordinary abilities to reproduce themselves. These cells have been used in scientific research and laboratories all over the world, helping in the search for cures and better understanding of disease. They were vital in developing the polio vaccine, in gene mapping, in vitro fertilisation, in cloning and in hundreds of medical projects.

Henrietta was a poor black American woman who worked as a tobacco farmer. She died without even knowing that her cells had been taken to a laboratory. For a long time, her family did not know either. The cells were known as HeLa, and Henrietta’s name disappeared from the record for more than a decade. This book gives her her rightful due, tells the amazing story of the cells (which have even gone into space) and raises the complex issues of human tissue use by science and the legal rights of the people whose cells and body parts are being used. How much do we control the stuff we are made of? The story is one of ethics, race, medicine and science. The author interviewed Henrietta’s children (who gained no financial benefit from the universal use of their mother’s cells), doctors and researchers, and bio-ethical law experts.

The book came out in 2010 and the following year won the National Academies Communication Award for a book that helped public understanding of science. It won several other awards as well, so I am obviously not alone in finding it fascinating. Oprah Winfrey stars in a 2017 biopic version of the story, you can see the trailer here. It looks like it is a fabulous movie.

Do you have an opinion of Henrietta’s story? Or maybe you can convince me to read other books about science? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

  The Lacks Family – Henrietta

   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, narrated by Cassandra Campbell
   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 2017 HBO TV Drama directed by George C. Wolfe. High resolution from YouTube Movies.

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Featured image credit- Henrietta Lacks, Lacks Family Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/LacksFamily/
Body image credit- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33080665

Comments (12)

  1. Melody

    I’m about to read The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel about women in astronomy. I’ve read other Dava Sobel books; they’re a blend of history and fictionalised biography of scientific figures and mostly a pretty easy read.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the recommendation. I loved her book Longitude and quite liked her one about Galileo’s Daughter.

  2. christine christofi

    Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks some years ago and must agree with you its fascination still lingers. Let me recommend to you Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of all Maladies, a Biography of Cancer. Do not be put off by the title. A hefty read but one that I couldn’t put down and I feel sure, Susannah, your interest in science already sparked by Henrietta will just take off.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Gosh, what a title! It does sound interesting, so I will look for it. Thanks Christine.

  3. Miland Joshi

    I would recommend Margot Lee Hstterly’s “Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race”, which has been made into a good film “Hidden Figures” directed by Theodore Melfi and starring Taraji P. Henson, about black American women mathematicians and scientists who helped the NASA space program behind the scenes despite the restrictions imposed by racial segregation policie sin the states where thye lived and worked.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I just loved the film of Hidden Figures but have not read the book – will look for it. Thanks.

  4. Wendy Sale

    I too loved this unexpected story so much I recommended it as our Book Club read. My group includes a cross section of readers, including a scientist and an English teacher, and all found it fascinating. And the best thing was that it was new to all of the very widely read group!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am glad you also found it fascinating. It is a good book to share with a book group, as it raises so many ethical issues. I found myself thinking about the whole story days later.

  5. Susannah, I agree. It’s a terrific book. The author’s tenacity in working with the family is as important as the story itself, because it took a lot to get the story from the family while respecting their feelings. The movie is equally good–not as detailed, of course, but emotionally powerful. The movie “Hidden Figures” is equally wonderful–about black women who helped manually compute the orbits for NASA’s early space flights. Haven’t read the book. “The Girls of Atomic City” is another good book, about women who helped on the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) in Tennessee. All science, all women!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I really loved the film ‘Hidden Figures’ and saw it twice. Thanks for the other recommendation, Collins.

  6. Robyn Gooden

    we read he rietta lacks in our book group . I found it so interesting because she is so well k own in.medical circles and has long lasting benefits to the world from a poor black American woman .amazimg !!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Wasn’t it fascinating to learn about someone so important and yet so unheard of. I am keen to see the new film about her.

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