Katie′s #CBR5 Review #9: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Source: library
Rating: 
Fun Fact: 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
Review Summary: An impressively unbiased look at an interesting ethical question, with an equally impressive personal account of how this issue changed one families’ life.

Henreitta Lacks is a young, black woman whose cancerous cells were harvested and grown  without her consent in the 1940′s. At the times, this was standard practice, especially with black patients, who still saw doctors from segregated wards or not at all. Today, her cells have changed the world. As the first cells to survive and continually reproduce, her cells have been used to develop numerous vaccines and learn more about many crucial cellular functions. Unfortunately, her family never benefited from the massive commercialization of her cells, although this book is an attempt to change that.

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pyrajane’s review #1: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta LacksWhat a great way to start off the year.

I wish this had been an easy read in the sense of right and wrong, but like everything else, things just don’t work that way.  I wanted to be firmly on one side, but I couldn’t.  While feeling the pain and confusion of the Henrietta’s family, I celebrated in the advancements that came about because of HeLa.  I was frustrated and grateful.  Most of all, I was on Skloot’s side as she pulled all the threads together and tried to weave the full picture.

Read the full review on my blog.  If you’ve had this on your TBR list for a while, move it to the top.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I’d heard plenty about Henrietta Lacks when this stormer of a book was released, and decided to read it  between reading this fascinating interview with the author about her writing process and having very minor surgery over Christmas. Perhaps my medical squick level had been tamped down enough for the grisly details not to deter me. I’d been fired up about the social costs of commercialising women’s health after seeing Pink Ribbons, Inc, last year, and this book ties in with some of those themes. But it’s more ambitious than just a diatribe, and ranges wider than a bit of popular science. Instead, it covers African-American history, sociology, cancer research, academic tiffs, family entanglements, and uncovers a truly astonishing story about one of the most influential people who has ever lived.

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Henrietta Lacks was the source of the HeLa cells, the first immortal human cells developed for research in a lab. Her legacy is mind-boggling – the malignant cells originally taken from her tumour have been reproduced billions of times, and they have been used across the board in medical research of all kinds, including space exploration and polio treatment, the Cold War, HIV and cancer research. HeLa underpins much of what medicine can do for us today. It’s the Coca-Cola of cell tissue, as ubiquitous in labs as white coats and caged rats.

But when Rebecca Skloot decided to uncover the story of the woman behind HeLa she found that the Lacks family had endured terrible hardships because of the cells. Henrietta’s family had been treated exceptionally shoddily by a medical establishment blown away by the importance of HeLa, and were suspicious to the point of violence by Skloot’s interest.

Fascinating, unsettling, and moving, it’s an excellent read, worthy without feeling weighty, as gripping as any thriller. The afterword about the legal and ethic morass of tissue donation was a bit dry, and I did side-eye the author’s nine solid pages of acknowledgements (including her barista – honey, slow your roll), but it’s still an example of great contemporary journalism.