Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Happy July friends! I hope that everyone’s summers have been going well! I’ve been super busy working two jobs and moving – so as a result my writing and reading has been at a low point for the past two months. But with my move finished and my job schedules more regular now, I’m hoping to get my nose buried in another book (currently going to start reading Supermarket by Bobby Hall aka. Logic!).

One book that I did get a chance to read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) by Rebecca Skloot. While this book is pretty scientific in the way that it describes the medical conditions of a woman and the research that stemmed (haha stem cells! get it?) from her cells, its 100% easy to read even without a scientific background. As someone who studied physiology for 4 years, I understood a lot of it and was really surprised by how much scientific techniques have improved even within 70 years, but the way Skloot explains everything is super accessible and educational! This book touches on histories of science, of families, of racism in medicine and in America and so much more. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in any of the above or just expanding your knowledge and reading repertoire!

This book is a semi-biography of the woman named Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman born in 1920 in Virginia. Skloot gives an in depth history of Henrietta’s life, something that was missing from literature for a long time for a woman who was unknowingly so integral to science. In 1951, Lacks became ill and went to the hospital to be tested for what was later determined to be cervical cancer. When undergoing treatment, doctors took samples of her tissue through biopsies without Henrietta’s consent or even knowledge, and gave them to Dr. George Gey, a cancer researcher. His work with these cells would jump-start biomedical research, and Henrietta’s cells which would come to be known as HeLa cells would be instrumental to researching all different types of diseases and cancers.

The book deals with multiple story lines – firstly Henrietta’s life, then her children’s life, and finally the impact HeLa cells had on scientific research. It’s very interesting as it looks at both the personal and world wide impact this one woman had on the world. A huge part of this novel focuses on her children, Deborah in particular, and the trauma that the un-consented to use of their mother’s cell’s caused them. As a poor black family in America, lack of understanding of what was happening to their mother and fear for what it could mean for themselves caused Henrietta’s children extreme amounts of stress, and also created a deep mistrust of the scientific and media communities.The book expertly touches on while HeLa cells have been irreplaceable in their contributions to science, the impact that they have had on the family of Mrs. Lacks has been much more negative.

Topics of racism in medicine and in America are covered in this book, addressed through Henrietta’s treatment by the John Hopkins staff, but also in the circumstances that the family faced and the treatment of the Lacks family by potential relatives. One point that the book made which I found extremely interesting and respectful was Skloot’s use of verbatim sayings. As many of the subjects of the book were African-American, the use of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) was common. AAVE is often looked down upon as something that indicates a lack of education or use of improper English, however this is based upon racial stereotypes and racism in people and the educational system. Skloot made it a point in the very beginning of her novel to state that she would be quoting verbatim what her interviewees stated, and that she would not be changing the quotes. I think that this was an excellent move on her part, and it carries with it the implication that a) AAVE shouldn’t be looked down as a language that is linguistically different than what is considered ‘normal’ English, and b) that she took these people seriously and respected their replies, illustrating that their sentiments and thoughts were valuable and knowledgeable no matter the fact that they were presented in a different dialect than what is considered ‘normal’.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was educational in a way that was accessible to people with and without a background in science, it addressed important issues in the medical and scientific fields in the past and present, and it showed how something that has a seemingly positive impact can be both good and bad depending on your perspective. I would highly recommend this book to people looking to broaden their horizons, and give it 5/5 stars 🙂

That’s all for now ducks, I’ll be back with another review shortly!

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