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Thoughts on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

July 19, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Goodreads)

When I found out about this title I wanted to read it.  My prior career involved much tissue culture, which Henrietta Lacks contributed to in a large way.  Henrietta Lacks was the unwitting donor of the first immortal human cell line.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot does a wonderful job at covering several aspects in one book.  Skloot writes a biography, a memoir, and a science book all rolled into one.

Skloot lays down a biographical background of the woman Henrietta lacks and her family.  In her writing you come to know the family and the history intimately.  In a memoir fashion Slkoot tells the tale of why she wanted to study Henrietta Lacks, her experience in researching Lacks, and her relationship with the various family members.  Skloot is an artful narrator and these parts were some of the most fascinating.  Finally the science nature of the book covers the various studies done using the HeLa cell line and even frames ethical concerns with the use of tissue from someone who did not willingly donate it.

The success of this book for me comes from Slkoot’s excellent narrative abilities.  She is able to describe scenes in remarkable detail, from what people are wearing to the physical descriptions of locations.  This tendency to provide great detail allows the reader to feel more intimately connected with the characters.  She is also able to convey the emotions of those involved.  You can feel the excitement of Deborah Lacks (Henrietta Lacks’ daughter) as she experiences the research that she and  Skloot do in regards to her mother.  You can also feel the intense anger and pain of the sons of Henrietta Lacks.  The emotional connection to the family that Slkoot provides stays with the reader throughout the book.

Skloot was also able to describe the science and scientific discoveries in very easy to understand ways without seeming condescending.  Though I worked extensively in cell and tissue culture, I had never learned the history behind it.  This too made this book an immense success for me.  Skloot covered the history of tissue culture and the discoveries made as Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were used extensively in science.  She also touched on the ethical concerns regarding tissue culture, things I never thought about when working with it.  It is easy when working in a laboratory setting to forget the human side of the research you are doing, Skloot makes it possible to feel the human connection behind the science.

Overall this is an excellent book to read regardless of whether you have a science background or not.  Skloot is a wonderful writer who transports you into the world of science, Henrietta Lacks, and her family.  Once I started this book I couldn’t put it down.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Denise Bruno permalink
    August 15, 2016 8:26 pm

    This was an amazing book. I was amazed at her spirit. The writer made me feel as if I was right there with her as she took the journey to know about Henrietta. I’ve shared my copy and hope the other readers are doing so as well!

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