Fame Richly Deserved – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Last summer, I was intrigued to see a book on my Before 25 Book Bucket List popping up in the local and then national news. I began clicking the titles, and was once again disappointed in my current home state.

The book was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It was making news because some parents wanted to ban what they deemed a “pornographic” book. Not yet having read the book, I knew they were being ridiculous. The book was the true story of a woman whose cells became the first immortal human cells in living history, and her family.

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Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.

Writing this review now, it seems significant that it is February – Black History Month. Henrietta was an impoverished black woman whose cells have helped create medical advances that affect everyone in this world, and yet not many people know her name or any of her story. Rebecca Skloot, who learned about HeLa cells and their origin while attending college in 1988, wrote this book meaning to change that.

Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, and author Rebecca Skloot.
Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and author Rebecca Skloot.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks delves deep into the still-pressing issues of racism and ethics in medical research. Henrietta was being treated for cervical cancer in the public wards of Johns Hopkins Hospital, when a sample of her cells was taken for research, without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. She died from the cancer, but her cells lived on in a lab, and continued to multiply and change the world. The book also details the author’s more than 10 year commitment to researching HeLa, and getting to know the family left behind by Henrietta Lacks. This book somehow flows beautifully and keeps you on the edge of your seat, while remaining both historically and scientifically accurate.

Sadly, I know there are some schools in Tennessee that have quietly taken this book off of their curriculum since the hullabaloo of some parents being upset over such a “pornographic” book. If they had actually read the book themselves, they would have seen how silly they were being.

Stained HeLa cells.
Stained HeLa cells.

As this whole story begins with cells that were collected from a woman being treated for cervical cancer, the book uses the scientifically correct words for a woman’s body – vagina, cervix, uterus, hands, fingers, toes. Any biology text book would include those words as well. There is a scene that describes Henrietta knowing something was wrong and manually searching for a tumor – but it is not at all sexual, and is only a few, brief paragraphs. Anyone who would call The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a book of graphically descriptive porn is obviously repressed and terrified of women’s bodies and the terminology used to describe them.

This is an extraordinarily well-written book, and extremely important for anyone to read – including middle or high school aged children. Race and the ethics of medical research are things that continue to be an issue in our world today, and we need to be knowledgable about them in order to discuss them. This book can contribute to anyone looking to grow their understanding, while keeping them enthralled and entertained.

I am glad that I decided to read this book as part of my quarter life bucket list, and highly recommend it to everyone. Staying informed is not a crime, and neither is ignorance… but ignorance poorly affects your quality of life, while being informed enhances it. That is why you should go read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

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This review was written as a part of my Before 25 Bucket List. It was the 8th book I read from my list, and there are only 37 days until I turn 25. Stay tuned for more reviews!