Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Title:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author:  Rebecca Skloot
Publication Information:  Broadway Paperbacks, Crown Publishing Group, Random House Inc. 2010. 381 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Favorite Quote:  "Everybody in Lacks Town kin to Henrietta, but she been gone so long, even her memory pretty much dead now ... Everything about Henrietta dead except them cells."

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating story of a woman who died in 1951. Until this book was written, she was virtually unknown, but her life and death have had an incalculable effect on the field of medicine.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor woman trying to survive. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated as a charity patient at Johns Hopkins. Without her permission or even her knowledge, doctors who treated her took and cultured her cells. Her cells showed such properties and such ability to thrive and multiply that they became an important tool in medical science. They were reproduced, bought, and sold by the millions and were critical in medical advances such as the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and other applications.

Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to suffer and struggle. On top of that, her children had to deal with the fact that a part of their mother was somehow alive out in the world. Others reaped professional and financial benefits while Henrietta's family did not.

This books alternates between telling the story of the HeLa cells and the story of Henrietta and her family. It takes a story of science and makes it about the people involved.

The topic is a fascinating one, and the book includes a lot of research. Sometimes, it is difficult to read because it contains so much information. I enjoyed the the story of Henrietta's life and family. I also enjoyed learning more about the scientific development that resulted.  However, for most of the book I found myself skimming through a lot of the details. It was interesting, but it was just a bit too much.

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