The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

On the Adult Non-Fiction shelf at 920 LAC

Plot Summary : This true story is about a young African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in the early 50s. Some cells were taken from her tumour(s) without consent and they turned out to be the first human cells that scientists were able to keep alive. Not only did they survive, they multiplied at such a fast rate that the original scientists had a surplus and were able to give them away to other scientists. The cells, called HeLa cells, have been involved in finding cures & in research in to all sorts of conditions, including being used by Salk in his Polio research. While the first scientists gave the cells away for free, medical companies have since made an absolute fortune selling them.

 Meanwhile . . . Henrietta’s young family were completely unaware of all this. Her children grew up in poverty, subject to domestic and sexual violence, turning to drugs and without much education.

The author alternates chapters of family history where the family members tell their story in absolutely their own voices with scientific explanations creating a stark contrast and rendering the whole story the more poignant and emotive (without being emotional).

Comments : The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  is a recent read by my book group and this story by award-winning science writer, Rebecca Skloot, certainly gave us a lot to talk about.

It was agreed the author treated the story of an ‘ignorant’ African American family’s ill-use by the medical and scientific establishment with skill, patience and compassion and that it is an important story that should be mandatory reading for medical and scientific students. (Our group includes one member who is an oncology nurse, did a degree in bioethics and sits on the Ethics Committee at her place of work).

The tenacity of Skloot and her patience and sensitivity in her dealings with the Lacks family was greatly admired. Comments included : “really interesting”, “a great read”, “an extraordinary horror story”, “real life is stranger than fiction”, “terrific”, “gripping”, “human”, and “going to stay with me”.

Our one abstainer hated it and was unable to get into it.

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