Review #9: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I’d only heard awesome things about this book, and the wait list for it at the library has been crazy long since it came out, so I was excited to read it.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who, in the 1950’s, went to the hospital to have a cervical tumor removed. During the operation, several small pieces of the tumor and her cervical tissue were taken to be used in research. These cells (known as HeLa)went on to become one of the most important scientific tools of modern medicine, aiding in virtually every major medical discovery of the last sixty years. The book is partially the story of those cells, but it focuses primarily on Henrietta, as well as her family. Skloot set out to tell the story of a woman long unacknowledged for her contribution to story, and ended up becoming close to her children, particularly Deborah, her youngest daughter. Through this relationship, Skloot provides a fascinating commentary on race, poverty, and medical ethics.

This was such an interesting book. I know little to nothing about cell research, beyond what I learned in high school biology, but Skloot presents complex information in an approachable, engaging way. I love how she melds science with story–she switches back and forth between the two narrative threads deftly, handling her (very large) cast of characters skillfully, never letting the reader get overwhelmed. The background she provides on medical research from the early-mid 1900s is captivating–she brings up a lot of scandals and horrific experiments that I’d never heard of before. The best part of the book, though, is her portrayal of Deborah–an uneducated and disabled woman barely scraping by. She is fascinating: passionate, eager to learn, and focused on getting the recognition her mother (who died when she was a very young child) deserved. This is Deborah’s story, more than anything, and Skloot absolutely does it justice.

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