Goodreads Book Blurb: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
My Opinion: Ok, this will likely be a shorter review, because how do you even go about reviewing a non-fiction book? You can’t give points on plot, because the plot isn’t a product of the author’s mind. You can’t give points on characters, because the characters in this case are real people.
I will say that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was very well written. While some of the medical jargon got dry at times, overall the book read very easily. Skloot gives everyone in the book a really great voice, and the whole thing reads like a novel, not a work of non-fiction.
Unfortunately, it is a work of non-fiction. This book brings up some very interesting issues of medical ethics and where the line is drawn. There are patents on certain cell lines, meaning it is expensive to run experiments on them to try and find a cure. This is especially true of certain cancers. Doctors don’t want patients to be in control of their own tissues because they fear patients will stifle progress for money, yet the doctors are doing that exact thing by patenting cell lines.
I don’t want to get too rant-y about the topic, but it really opened up my eyes and made me realize some things.
Bottom Line: A very readable non-fiction about the medical world and some of the real horrors of greed within it.