Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This nonfiction book traces the roots of the famous cell line HeLa. Now I had no idea this cell line ever existed, but every one of my brilliant scientific friends had done research with these cells at one point or another during their careers.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman growing up near Baltimore who went to John Hopkins to receive treatment for cancer. One of her doctors took a sample of her cancer cells during one of her procedures without her knowledge or consent. This sample became the first line of cells able to survive in laboratory settings. Her family knew nothing of this until decades after Henrietta’s death.

The book is a good mix of Henrietta’s life story, the evolution of informed consent laws, the history of culturing cells and the impact on her family after they found out what had been done. Near the end of the book, it feels like Skloot grew tired of trying to weave the familial story line in with the scientific developments and just related the science to the end of the book. Instead, Skloot focused more intensely on her personal relationship with Henrietta’s descendants.

 I think the book really shines in those moments where it does bring together the science, the family’s story, and the ethical implications of what was done. I found it to be a compelling read and it raised appropriate questions about the treatment of African American men and women in free care settings.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?


  1. loved the recent law & order (season finale?) episode on this. love me some L&O in general, however since they're on my side in most cases, i LOVE the political/social/governmental commentary they often make on recent events! sigh...i wish i read more...