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

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 001

This book received lots of recognition when it was published
in 2010 and was listed as best non-fiction book of the year
in several publications.

Book club met last night and everyone liked the book–except one member
who declined to read it because of the subject matter.

In the 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer and some of her
tissue was saved for medical research.  The procedure was done at
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland—a hospital which was
originally established to furnish medical care to a large black urban
population.   Henrietta Lacks was a charity patient and was essentially
unaware that some of her tissue cells would be collected for research.

The scientists were astounded to discover that Henrietta Lacks’ cells,
cancerous, continued to divide and multiply again and again.  The
cells became known as HeLa cells in research circles, and were
shared among several institutions, and then sold because of their
prized behavior for research.

Ms Skloot’s book traces this event and then couples it with interviews
with Henrietta’s immediate family.  They were somewhat proud that
their mother’s cells were doing useful research, but were also resentful
that they were not sharing in any profits of that research.

The first half of the book is essentially Henrietta’s story, background.
The second half, the interviews with the family and with the author
delving into family history to find out as much as possible about
Henrietta.

Ethical considerations arise from reading about this kind of medical
activity, which though legal, leads to questions about a patient’s
rights and ownership of his or her body.  Was the Henrietta Lacks
story an anomaly of the times?  Or is it a topic to be concerned
with today as well?

I would recommend this book for a reading group.  It certainly
sparked discussion in our book club.

Next month’s book selection: The Human Stain by Philip Roth

 

 

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6 Responses to Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  1. FictionFan says:

    The subject matter of this one would stop me reading it – too recently touched by cancer in my own family. But fellow blogger Lady Fancifull, who you’ve proably spotted commenting on my blog, loved this book.

    Looking forward to hear what you think of the Roth – if I remember correctly I found this one powerful, but didn’t really like it. (It was before I started reviewing so my memory of it is sketchy.)

    • booksandbuttons says:

      Roth: I read it seven years ago in a different book group and liked
      his writing very much. I’ll see what I think this time around.

  2. Lady Fancifull says:

    Well spotted that Fiction Fan. I RAVED about this book, – another one with a similar subject matter, – cancer and cancer research rather than one particular strand of it, is The Emperor of All Maladies, which explores lots about medical ethics, the politics of science and similar, and is excellently written

  3. Lady Fancifull says:

    PS Books and buttons – am I missing something, I can’t find a ‘like’ button, only the comment posting – now maybe you have made a deliberate choice not to have the like button – but it is a way for ‘likers’ to publicise your blog as if a liker has the posts i like widget displayed on their site, ‘liking’ places your post in their sidebar. It was FF who alerted me to this one, and I’ve picked up a lot of new bloggers who I’ve gone and read posts from, all due to the fact that someone ‘liked’ their post and it appeared in the sidebar of someone I follow.

    • booksandbuttons says:

      OK, I’m working on that “like” button . . .and on your blog, I can’t
      find a way to read a past post (about henrietta lacks, for instance).
      I’m probably not looking in the right way. Bon weekend!

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