Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

As a student who went through a whole heck of a lot to get to do human research {and by human research, I mean asking people questions about their sex lives}, this book infuriated me. It enraged me. It made me appreciate the over-compensating process I had to navigate for my thesis. And it made me realize how privileged I have been with insurance, basic knowledge of medicine, and the temerity to question my doctors and protect my information.

Meet Henrietta Lacks. She was a wife and mother from an arguably "rough" background, raised in the 1930's in a family that still resided on the land their ancestor's had been enslaved on. She was poor, had kids, a husband who {again, arguably} raped her and didn't help, and she had cancer. She was also loved for her kindness, her sympathy, and her mother henning: she took care of anyone.

And she did what any person would do in her situation: she went to Johns Hopkins for treatment when she found a large lump inside her cervix. Johns Hopkins was a hospital founded to help care for the poor and sick in Baltimore. Now, they are an elite research institution that has helped discover cures and treatments for many deadly diseases and ailments.

They did that with Henrietta's "help." When they removed the tumor from her cervix, doctors took that tissue and grew a continuous cell line which can now be found in labs around the world and had helped find treatment for a vast number of things. Her cells have led to mapping human DNA, identifying learning disabilities due to genetic markers, and predisposition to certain conditions. They revolutionized the way scientists work and research biology and genetics.

But, there's one problem. Her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. And then her familiy's blood was taken without their knowledge and informed consent. Her descendents still can't afford health insurance and her daughter has suffered some severe emotional trauma from the media attention and the knowledge that her mother's cells are still around after she thought they had died.

This is one of those non-fiction works that reads like fiction. It's engaging, informative but not information dense, and it will illicit and emotional response. And you will not want to put it down.


  1. W.H.O.A. That is CRAZY! I'm totally going to read it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I got angry just reading the description of this book!

  3. I have this on my list to read! It sounds very thought provoking! Great review!

  4. This sounds like a book that I HAVE to read. It reminds me of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that I really didn't learn about until on into my 20's and I am from Alabama. It makes you wonder how many more people have had similar things happen to them without their knowledge.

  5. Wow! this one is next for me! Thanks for the review!

  6. I don't think I've ever read the synopsis for this book. I just had seen it on so many bestseller and book club lists that I threw it onto my to-read list. It definitely sounds like a great book.