Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“‘HeLa cells were  one of the most important things that happened in medicine in the last hundred years, ” Defler said. Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, ‘She was a black woman.’ He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot was published in 2010 and is 384 pages.  I heard about the book by way of Twitter buzz, and bought it for my Kindle.  It’s one of my favorite books of 2010.

Known as HeLa to the scientific community, the malignant cells of a 31 year old black woman in 1951, have been the basis for advances in and cures for polio and cervical cancer, have led to discoveries in fertility methods, cloning, and gene mapping, and have been used to test the effects of radiation by literally traveling to space and back.  Unfortunately, those cells were taken without the consent of Henrietta Lacks, and her legendary contribution to science is tainted by the poverty and difficulties of the family she left behind.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of those cells and the Lacks family.  Skloot’s detailed but incredibly readable book is presented clearly, without judgment, and without exploitation of the family that has suffered much through the years.  Her journey took her from Baltimore City, to Crownsville, Maryland, to Clover, Virginia, and back, and spanned ten years.  It weaves medical history with personal history and explores themes of medical ethics, spirituality, poverty, and friendship.

I saw on Skloot’s website that the book is being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, and that Skloot will be at Johns Hopkins on October 2nd for a book signing.

I give my highest recommendation for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. Heather J. says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this – it sounds great. If you plan to go to the Oct 2 event, let me know … I might be able to join you.

  2. Erika Robuck says:

    As of now, I’m planning on it, unless something crazy comes up. I’d love company!

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