Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This is one of those books that looks really ominous – a huge, hardback full of scary-sounding scientific terms as chapter headings and a bibliography the size of a phone book – so you put off reading it despite however much you might actually want to. If the library hadn’t been vehemently demanding it back for the last three days, it may have been even longer before I read it myself, but I’m glad I did.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells — taken without her knowledge — became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . . Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

When I did eventually come to pick it up, I found that I had no idea what the hefty book was actually meant to be about, so I’ll just paraphrase it quickly – Henrietta Lacks was admitted into hospital in the 1950s with a severe form of cancer. Before she died, doctors took a number of samples from her tumours without her consent. These cell samples proved to be the only cells able to be grown in a laboratory despite numerous samples from other ‘donors’ also being tested. Clones of these cells are still used more than 60 years later to test everything from new vaccines to cancer treatments – they’ve been to space and they’ve been blown up by miniature atomic bombs. The companies that sell these clones to basically anybody that wants some have made millions of dollars doing so, and yet the Lacks family only discovered Henrietta’s cells were a valuable commodity a few years ago and are so penniless they can’t afford medical insurance.
I was surprised by how accessible it actually is. Obviously it would be impossible to discuss scientific development in cell culture without throwing around a few bits of terminology, but Ms. Skloot clearly doesn’t expect readers to have a Master’s Degree in Biology. She explains exactly what she’s talking about in a capable, unpatronising manner, so I never once felt like the whole thing was whooshing past over my head. She frequently repeats conversations she explained the whole thing to the Lacks family and I found that helped to consolidate my own understanding.

You know a book is written very well indeed when the issues it raises makes you so angry you get that tight feeling in the pit of your stomach. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about my tissues being used for research without my consent, but the millions of dollars made in profit by the medical companies was clearly immoral, especially when the Lacks family can’t even afford medical insurance. I love medical ethics and I could easily sit here all day and lecture you all, so I won’t, but the author does a valid job of making you care without sounding too preachy.

I think that’s the fundamental reason I liked this book – Rebecca Skloot is a very likeable author. I’ve read non-fiction books before that I probably would have enjoyed a lot more if I didn’t want to throttle the author (Cinderella Ate My Daughter, So Many Books, So Little Timewhat can I say, grouchy misanthropy works for me). But hey, at least now I’ve learnt that it works both ways. I like Ms. Skloot. She comes across as dedicated, intelligent, friendly and approachable and I genuinely respect her for the time and effort she put in to getting these issues across. She frequently describes how she collected the information so it makes it easy to see her as a living, breathing person instead of a bunch of fingers aimlessly typing out Latin terminology onto a manuscript. I like her, and to be honest, I tend not to do that!

My only slight gripe with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the very sudden ending. But then again, it isn’t a fiction book and so Ms. Skloot can hardly just go and whip up a better ending. Still, I can’t help but feel it could have been rounded off a little better – the narrative is progressing nicely but then it suddenly… stops. There’s then a concluding chapter about Ms. Skloot’s personal take on the issues, which I did find interesting but isn’t quite the same.

I really would recommend this book. I was concerned over how difficult it was going to be to read but it’s not at all. If nothing else, you should be aware of how little right you have to your own cells!


  1. Oh this sounds like an interesting book and issue. I think medical ethics and ethics in many fields need more exposure. I think really smart people try to use their intelligence in a way to make anything sound logical and it just isn't right. Great review.

  2. I know that I already mentioned this (I think..) but I still have that eBook copy of this hanging around on my eReader! At least that means I don't have the intimidation of it being a humongous hardback though…

    I did worry about the science side of it though. I bought it because I was really interested in the medical ethics side of it but science isn't one of my strong points (to put it mildly…) and I thought I'd just be reading the words rather than actually taking in what Skloot was saying. Now I don't have to worry – phewf!

    I probably won't get to it right away but I at least might read it this year now, so that's a start!

  3. Hanna says:

    @LIB – That's EXACTLY how I felt. I love medical ethics but I dislike science so much that my best friend and I had an agreement throughout secondary school – she did my science homework and I did her english! You don't need any science knowledge though – it's more about the ethics that anything else.

    I know what you mean about reading the words though – I've just done exactly that with the book I've just finished and it wasn't even non-fiction!

  4. Sleep Aid says:

    Still reading this captivating book on “The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks”. But so far I can tell it will be the most interesting read of the year for me. The thought that so many people are apart of this woman; this woman would lived decades ago. It’s just amazing!

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