Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (non-fiction)

In 1951 a young black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with what turned out to be an extremely aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her treatment, tissue was removed from her body and placed in a petrie dish where her malignant cells continued to divide and multiply, resulting in the first ever immortal cell line. Ms. Lacks died within months of first being diagnosed with cancer, leaving behind a husband and five children.

This book tells the little-known story of Henrietta Lacks's short life, the development of her immortal cell line, and how her family has been impacted by both her death and finding out 20 years after her death that her cells were still very much alive and spread all over the globe in laboratories, hospitals, and tissue banks.

Henrietta's cells are still alive today, and it is safe to say that every person alive today who has benefited in any way from medical science has benefited from her cell line. They have been used (and continue to be used) to study gene mapping, develop vaccines, medications, and even in vitro fertilization, research cancer and cancer treatments, study the effects of chemicals, cosmetics, drugs, environmental pollutants, and a variety of other things on living cells. What is ironic is that the descendants of Henrietta Lacks live in poverty and many of them cannot even afford health care.

What is equally appalling is that Ms. Lacks's cells were taken from her body and used for research without her knowledge or consent. And while this may be shocking, what a lot of people don't realize (I didn't!) is that people only have rights over the tissues and bodily fluids that are attached to their bodies - once something is removed from your body, it's no longer yours. That was true in 1951, and it's still true today. This certainly raises some interesting ethical and moral questions.

It took the author about ten years to research and write the book, and I was completely engrossed from the first page. The author captures the very colorful and human side of the story, going into great depth about Henrietta and her family, as well as managing to convey all the technical science-y stuff in very readable layman's terms.

I'm hanging onto this one, hoping I can get my husband to read it, but I highly recommend it.


  1. I read this, too, and also highly recommend it. It was such a fascinating story with lots of interesting characters.

  2. When I was away at a camp in Philadelphia one of the people I met there, Adam. Was reading this book and trust me I'm not one to read books. He was explaining to me all of the violating and horrible things that were done to her. After hearing that I knew that I had to find this book and read it, and I'm glad I did. It frightens me to really see how selfish we are; we want something so badly and don't even think about how it would affect us-IT'S TERRIBLE! We should be ashamed. If you've never heard of this book in your life take a chance and read it. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was not written like the way boring school text books are, it's written in the characters original dialoge and is explained in a way a five year old could understand it-Comparing a complex cell to New York City. It's is important that Henrietta's life is known and people don't know enough about this and they should; I sure didn't know but I'm glad I do now. It's a book you don't want to put down and you want to read over and over again but at the same time freak you out. READ IT- PERIOD!