“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years….” Sounds like something from a science fiction novel doesn’t it? At least that was my first impression when I stumbled upon a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot while browsing Chapters one night. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only was Skloot’s book a work of non-fiction, but that Henrietta Lacks was in fact a real woman! Appalled by the fact that Henrietta made one of the biggest contributions to science and yet is unknown by most people influenced Skloot to investigate the history behind HeLa cells and share Henrietta’s story with the world.
Diagnosed with cancer in the early 1950s, doctors preforming her biopsy discovered that Henrietta’s cells grew infinitely in the lab. In other words…Henrietta’s cells were immortal! What do I mean by immortal? Well, during the 1950s, scientists didn’t have access to human cells for research purposes like they do today. At the time, scientists had not yet discovered a method of keeping human cells alive for longer then a couple of days. Henrietta’s cells, however, (now known as HeLa cells) possessed the ability to divide and reproduce, giving scientists an endless supply of human cells to complete their research. In short, it is because of Henrietta and her HeLa cells that scientists were able to develop the polio vaccine and make advances in genetic mapping, in vitro fertilization, and cloning!
Now I’m sure many of you who are less than enthusiastic about science are extremely tempted to stop reading this review right now. After all, who wants to spend precious reading time learning about cells, genetics, and cancer? We get enough of that in school already! The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, however, is more than just a book about science. It is the story of Henrietta’s life growing up as a poor black farmer, and the continued struggles of her family who still lack access to health care despite the multimillion dollar contribution to medicine made by their mother. Sure, you learn a lot about biology and the advancement of medicine, but Skloot’s clear and well paced writing make getting through the science focused parts of the book a breeze.
Overall, I LOVED The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and would definitely recommend it to readers with an interest in history, science, or memoirs and biographies! I can’t count the number of times I gasped out loud while reading, and I can guarantee that you will find your jaw hitting the floor too! Now that I know about the contribution that her cells have made to science and medicine, I’ll be thinking about Henrietta and her family every single time that I go to visit a doctor. If The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks doesn’t sound like the type of book for you, then at the very least watch the video below or go and visit this website to read a brief article about Henrietta, and better inform yourself about the miracle of HeLa cells!
Rating: 5 Stars