Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Crown Publishers
369 pages

"I got a knot on my womb." 

With those seven words, Henrietta Lacks became immortal.   It didn't happen immediately.  Several months later, in the fall of 1951, Henrietta would die at age 31 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer, leaving behind a husband and five young children. 

When she died, "a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta's were different; they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped."  (pg. 4)

They still haven't.

The story of Henrietta Lacks's cells and what happened to them is miraculous.  While this book captures this scientific breakthrough in riveting detail (and I am not a scientist, yet found this absolutely fascinating), it is Henrietta's story and that of her family that is the most compelling.  For decades, they had no idea whatsoever that their mother's cells were being grown (nor that they were taken from her to begin with) and that they had been responsible for so many medical advances that we take for granted today.

Henrietta's cells "were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson's disease; and they've been used to study lactose indigestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers." (pg. 4).

They've gone up in space as part of studies on zero-gravity. They've "helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene-mapping, in-vitro fertilization." (pg. 2)

Again, Henrietta's family knew none of this.  And while other reporters and researchers would make inquiries and interview (or attempt to interview) the family, it wasn't until Rebecca Skloot's interest in Henrietta's story took hold that her story - and that of her family - would finally be able to be told.  That story is this incredible book. 

Frankly, it is a story that almost wasn't told.  The tenacity and courage of Rebecca Skloot over the decade of research and interactions with the Lacks family is incredibly admirable, to say the least.  I can honestly say that if I was Rebecca, I think I would have given up.  She spent thousands of hours and dollars on this project over the course of the decade it took to write this book, was stood up repeatedly when making plans to travel to interview members of the Lacks family, and was even thrown into a wall by Henrietta's daughter.

Still, Ms. Skloot persevered and the result is an incredible tribute to Henrietta Lacks and her family.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reads like a novel, with its story of the difference in class, of race, of ethics, of education, of the reality of how people with cancer and disabilities were once treated.  Through extraordinary writing that is not in any way dry or full of complicated medical jargon, Ms. Skloot brings to life the story of the woman who is responsible for saving the lives and extending the lives of millions of people, even as her cells continue growing today.

"One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons - an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall." (pg. 2)

Many people have praised The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and it has deservedly earned a place on several lists of best books published in 2010.  Indeed, this is truly one of them and it belongs there, as this is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read, and one that I will be (and have been) recommending to everyone.  

P.S. I would also highly recommend the audiobook version, too, as I listened to the first 150 pages during a week that included more driving than usual. Cassandra Campbell's narration is wonderful - ironically, I had just finished Half the Sky which she also narrated - and I think she is among the best audiobook narrators I've listened to.  I only switched to the print version because I wasn't going to be driving any long distances for the next week or so, and this was so gripping.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Peppermint Ph.D. said...

Wow! You've sold me...I've seen and read several reviews of this book but yours is the one that finally helps me understand what this is all about. I have so many questions...why Henrietta? Why was her family left out of the loop? Why were they the so reluctant to discuss the case with anyone? Guess I'll just have to read it to find out :)

JoAnn said...

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will definitely be my favorite nonfiction book this year... and I totally agree with your assessment of Cassandra Campbell's narration. Just put Half the Sky on my audible wishlist, too.

avisannschild said...

This review gave me goosebumps. I'm definitely putting this one on the wish list!

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I am so glad to read this review. I've seen this on so many Best of lists and I am now even more truly fascianted. Wonderful review. I could tell you really enjoyed it!

Erin said...

I listened to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earlier this year and thought it was fantastic. I love how well Skloot blended her own experiences with Henrietta's bio, plus the history with the modern science. A very accessible, touching, and informative book! I'm so glad you liked it!

Natalie said...

this book got a ton of buzz a few months back, and i added it to my list but haven't gotten to it yet. your idea to give the audio book a whirl is perfect for me; i'm off to check my library's catalog.
nat @book, line, and sinker

ps. love your blog header and the story behind it. it's so quintessentially 'jersey'. (lol. i'm a native; i can say that, right?)

pps. would you be able to open your blog comment settings to accept NAME/URL? it's a bit difficult to comment on your blog for non-blogger visitors. thanks! :)

K A B L O O E Y said...

I just looked over a bunch of Best of 2010 lists and bought a few for my brand spanking new Kindle (jury's still out). I didn't get this book but now I think I have to, given that you're usually right about these things.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Glad you all liked this one - and that the review convinced some of you to give it a try. Will be interested to hear what you think.

Natalie, thanks so much for mentioning that about the settings. Hopefully it is fixed now!

Iliana said...

Oh I like what you said that it reads like a novel. I should read more non-fiction but fiction always wins but something like this I think I'd really like. This one has been on my list since it came out. Great review!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

Ooh, I love Cassandra Campbell! I have this one on my Kindle and hope to get to it soon. It's been on my TBR since it came out, and it keeps showing up on Best of the Year lists.

Jenna said...

This sounds like an extremely interesting read... I would really like to pick it up.

christa @ mental foodie said...

Yep, this will be one of my 2010 favorites!