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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: Review by Meilee Anderson

TRIGGER WARNING: Readers should be aware in advance that this book contains scenes that include sexual assault.

2020 was the year I was determined to read 50 books in 50 weeks and complete the Tacoma Library Extreme Reader Challenge. I made a reading plan and outlined the books I intended to read. Category #3 “a book based on a real person” I scoured the library’s list of suggested titles. I stopped on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’d never heard of her before. Immortal? This title appeared in the library’s non-fiction section.  The colorful cover had a photo of woman with her hands on her hips in a jaunty pose, a confident broad smile on her face. I was hooked. Who was this woman and why was she immortal?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It all started in the 1950’s when Henrietta got sick with what turned out to be an aggressive cancer. She was treated in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. As I turned the pages, I realized I was following multiple stories. The story of what happened to Henrietta, the story of her family left behind after her death, and the author’s experience as she uncovered an incredible story that almost reads like science fiction. 

Imagine losing your mother to cancer, grieving her death and then finding out years later that cells from your mother’s body were used in medical research without her consent. That the research made possible by your mother’s cells profited the pharmaceutical and medial research industries to the tune of millions probably billions of dollars. Imagine discovering the research made possible by your mother’s cells changed the scientific world. Imagine learning your mother’s cells were still alive decades after her death and were still being used in research. Imagine your family is struggling with health challenges, living in poverty and legally unable to share in any of the financial gains made possible by your mother’s cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a true story.

Henrietta’s cells were taken from her body without consent. The cells were cultured, sold, and used in experiments in space, and around the world.

Author, Rebecca Skloot recorded Henrietta’s daughter as saying “She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” This book moved me tears. I felt sadness over the injustice of how Henrietta and her family were treated. I was inspired by the author’s dedication to uncovering the truth. I wrestled with thoughts about medical research and what is ethical, legal, and moral. I raged at the unethical experiments conducted on people without their consent, without full disclosures.

I recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book because it’s an important story. There’s a reason it became a New York Times Bestseller. This is a thought provoking, shocking look at medical research. This book takes a topic like bioethics in medical research and makes it very, very human.


GoodReads: Get it here

Indie Book Store: Get it here

Rebecca Skloot’s Bio

(Via Goodreads) Rebecca Skloot is an award winning science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. She has worked as a correspondent for WNYCs Radiolab and PBSs Nova ScienceNOW. She and her father, Floyd Skloot, are co-editors of The Best American Science Writing 2011 . You can read a selection of Rebecca Skloot’s magazine writing on the Articles page of this site.

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Annette Benedetti
Annette Benedetti
Annette is a writer, editor and photographer from Portland, OR. Her work appears in a variety of publications including Bust, Red Tricycle, Motherly and Domino. When she’s away from her desk she can be found teaching women yoga at wilderness retreats, exploring new cities across the states and hiking the trails at Mt. Rainier—one of her favorite places on earth.
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