The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 2010

I read it: March 2011

immortal life

Henrietta Lacks’ cells (HeLa cells) became prolific and profitable without her knowledge and consent. There was amazing biology at work. As one of her relatives put it: “Nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin. That’s where the mystery’s at.” The science is profound, but the real mystery at the heart of Skloot’s book is twofold: why did Lacks’ cells spread through the scientific community so quickly while her family lived in ignorance of that fact and could not even afford personal healthcare? And how has it taken over fifty years for the full story to be told, despite numerous attempts by various parties with intentions either deceitful or honest?

Much of the book centers around Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, and through this person we get a glimpse into the impact the HeLa cells had on the family linked to them in name. The tale is wide in scope yet simultaneously personal, and the reader can’t help but see him- or herself fitting into the sprawling picture of science, consumerism, and human drama that Skloot explores in her impressive story. It’s a lot to chew on, but as Deborah Lacks says, “We read what we can and try to understand.”

Music corner: Yeasayer’s “Henrietta” is a moving piece inspired by Lacks’ story. We can live on forever.

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