BookBrowse Reviews The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Discuss |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot X
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Feb 2010, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 400 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

Buy This Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


Winner of BookBrowse's 2010 Readers' Choice Book Award

Working on the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore, I've found it impossible to remain unaware of tensions between the hospital and the neighborhood. While Hopkins has a world-renowned reputation for excellence in both research and medical care, it also has sown the seeds of mistrust in locals, some of whom believe that the hospital exploits the black families that live nearby. In one fascinating chapter of The Immortal Life, "Night Doctors," Rebecca Skloot relates some of these urban legends, offering the testimony of a relative of Henrietta Lacks: "'I'm telling you, I lived here in the fifties when they got Henrietta, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere near Hopkins. When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps, or Hopkins might get us.'" As recently as the 1990s, residents brought lawsuits against Hopkins for failing to disclose high lead levels in homes that the institution had rented to families participating in a lead abatement study. It is Henrietta Lacks's experience, however, that best exemplifies the intertwining of race, poverty, women's health, informed consent, and treatment modalities not only at Hopkins but also nationwide, making it the perfect mix of human interest story and scientific investigation.

Skloot strikes a tricky balance between inserting herself into the narrative and stepping back to let the Lacks family, the heart and soul of the book, tell their stories. For the most part she succeeds. Encountering a wall of resistance from Henrietta's sons, Skloot sets out to contact their sister, Deborah, a simultaneously wary and welcoming woman who has been exploited by previous writers and curiosity-seekers with dubious motives. The two forge a close relationship despite the great differences in their ethnic and cultural backgrounds, with Deborah often accompanying Skloot on her research travels.

One of the most moving segments occurs when Skloot arranges for Deborah and her troubled brother Zakariyya to visit the Hopkins laboratory of Christoph Lengauer, an Austrian cancer researcher who shows the Lacks siblings their mother's cells under the microscope. Lengauer is the first scientist to express empathy with the family's fears as well as anger about how history has forgotten Henrietta, echoing the theme of the book when he says, "'Whenever we read books about science, it's always HeLa this and HeLa that. Some people know those are the initials of a person, but they don't know who that person is. That's important history.'"

Just as Skloot brings dignity to the individuals who make scientific investigation possible, she also expertly lays out the pros and cons of the current tissue research debate in her "Afterword." This complex issue has valid points on both sides: tissue-rights advocates maintain that patients who undergo diagnostic procedures should be able to determine how their tissues can be used; at the same time, many scientists contend that research will suffer if patients have such control over their "'bits and pieces,'" as Harvard University vice provost David Korn deems the tissues taken from these sorts of procedures. (Informed consent is required from patients who are specifically donating tissues for research but not for patients whose tissues are stored after procedures like biopsies and appendectomies.) So far, the courts have ruled in favor of the greater good of science at what some see as an intolerable cost to individual rights. Momentum is growing, however, for doctors and scientists to more readily share information about what they might do with the byproducts of routine medical tests and operations. We have already made great strides since the days when patients took their doctors' word as law and felt too humbled to ask questions; perhaps, Skloot suggests, becoming educated on bioethics will help people better understand the ramifications of the medical forms that they sign and the sacrifices that they might need to make on behalf of scientific research. Though it sometimes veers into melodrama at the expense of a more nuanced approach, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks makes an engaging introduction to these issues, one that hooks the reader with its emphasis on the real people behind the controversy.

Reviewed by Marnie Colton

This review was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  HPV Vaccines

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Last Ballad
    The Last Ballad
    by Wiley Cash
    Ella May WigginsA hundred years ago or so, farming land west of Charlotte, North Carolina was given over to giant ...
  • Book Jacket: Future Home of the Living God
    Future Home of the Living God
    by Louise Erdrich
    Louise Erdrich began Future Home of the Living God in 2002, set it aside, and picked it up again in ...
  • Book Jacket: The Last Mrs. Parrish
    The Last Mrs. Parrish
    by Liv Constantine
    Amber has lived in poverty all her life, and she has had enough. Of course, wishing to have money ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

At once a love story, a history lesson and a beautifully written tale of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Strangers in Budapest
    by Jessica Keener

    Strong characters and a riveting plot combine in this psychological thriller set in Budapest.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E Dog H I D

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.