The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Cannonball Read 6 – Review #3

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Non-Fiction, history, kind of a biography I guess.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from aggressive cervical cancer. She left behind a husband and four young children. She also left behind a sample of cancerous tissue that did what very little other human tissue had ever done before, it lived. Her tissue survived and reproduced, providing a unlimited source of human cells for experimentation. You can imagine the breadth of research possibilities that became possible when this cell line – called HeLa – originated at Johns Hopkins.

But the Lacks family couldn’t. They were poor, inbred (literally) sharecroppers. Years after her death they started hearing about how Henrietta, mother and wife, was “alive.” The book is an exploration of Henrietta’s life, the effect of her cells on science and society, and her family’s struggle to understand exactly what was happening to Henrietta.

It was a difficult read, the author moves back and forth between several different narratives, including her personal story of finally contacting the Lacks family – a saga in its own right. I greatly enjoyed this book, it is a very intense story. It was another story of a poor black person exploited by a system populated by educated white men. Then a person with privilege would prove that privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. For every time I was saddened and angered at an act of mindlessness or unfairness, there was a vignette that had me pumping my fist on my commute train and saying “You Go!”

The most chilling revelation in the book is the lag between science, society, and law. Science discovers something, like cells. Then society comes to an understanding of individuals having cells. Individuals do not, under the law in the United States, own their own cells or even their genetic code. While cells grown from Henrietta Lacks’ tumor have been sold for millions of dollars over six decades, her family cannot afford health insurance. Any bodily material that is removed from your body is out of your control and the institution in possession of your tissue can do what they want with it.

I heartily recommend this book as an intense and enlightening story touching on personal and scientific exploration and revelation.


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