The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

immortalA friend of mine has been pushing me to read this book for over a year.  It was always on my ‘to read’ list, but never seemed to make the ‘am reading’ pile.  Then I found it as an audio book at my local library.  This is one book that is greatly enhanced by listening to the audio book.

This is actually at least three books twisted in to one.  There is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman in Baltimore whose tissue was taken during a procedure and was used to start the most successful cell culture line of all time.  There is the scientific story of cell culture, the growth of the HeLa line, and the experiments that were conducted on the cells.  There is the story of the researching and writing of the book as Rebecca Skloot gets to know Deborah Lacks and they put together the puzzle of her mother and the cells.

Any one of those stories could have become dry or cloyingly sweet, but together they balance each other out, creating a book where the important story of cell cultures (and the HeLa) line is told in the context of the history and family of the woman whose cells began the whole process.  As a piece of social justice writing it is brilliant.  These cells have fuelled a growing cell experimentation industry, and yet the family of Henrietta is poor, uneducated, and without the medical insurance to deal with their health problems.

Skloot does a wonderful job of unearthing the story of Henrietta Lacks, while teaching us why it is so important.  I would highly recommend this book, particularly in an educational context as it ties together history, science and politics.

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