The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a difficult book to read, on so many levels. Every aspect of the book creates a discomfort, a pain for the reader. The book is a story, but one not of fiction, but based on the true tale of Henrietta Lacks, her legacy and her family. Hardly anybody, before this book was released, would know who Henrietta was, but if not for the cells of her body, many scientific breakthroughs would have struggled.

Henrietta Lacks died of a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, one that invaded her body quickly and ravaged her. The hospital in which Henrietta was treated took a sample of cells from her tumour and discovered that her cells were special. They were immortal. This meant that they continuously replicated, which allowed scientists to experiment on a never exhausting supply of human cells, this lead to the Polio inoculation and many other scientific marvels. Unfortunately, nobody asked Henrietta’s permission to take the cells. They were taken during an autopsy and all was hidden from the family of Henrietta Lacks.

This book is a very human story, one that revolves around the very ethics and morals that build us as people. The scientists stole the very essence of Henrietta’s body and spread it around the world. Yes, they were doing good, but while they mass produced her cells, her family were living on a pittance and could rarely afford rent.

The tale of Henrietta, a black tobacco farmer, and her family is heartfelt. Told by a woman whose passion for the story clearly shows. Rebecca Skloot documents every detail of the story, interviewing as many people she could over thousands of hours. Skloot has written a work that gives Henrietta an new immortality, one that her family can be proud of.

It’s a book that, while telling a story from decades ago, is still relevant. Today we are constantly concerned by health care, our privacy and our families. This was a time where all of that mattered to people, but nobody helped the black community take care of these essentials. Being transported through words back to this time is harrowing. Hearing how Henrietta’s body broke down from radiation treatment and how her family were ignored is heartbreaking. Despite the discomfort of what I read, I truly enjoyed reading about the Lacks family.

The problem that I have with the book is that it seems confused and may very well confuse the reader. It is part life story and part science journal. Much of the latter half of the book deals with the cell producing companies and the scientists involved and after the passion of Henrietta’s chapters, they feel like a lecture, rather than a story of injustice. As someone who revels in science and enjoyed the opening chapters describing cell studies, I found the last third of the book to drag and each page turn became more difficult.

The confusion of the book carries itself into the presentation of the book itself. As it stands on a bookshelf it looks like a work of fiction and even if you read about the book and realise that it isn’t, you’re drawn into thinking that you’ll read predominately about the Lacks family and their story. But much of the book tells the other side, the side of the medical professionals. While this isn’t a problem for some, I feel that part of the audience may feel that the book is marketed in the wrong way and bookstores shelving it with other novels, in the fiction section, will only heighten confusion.

I would still recommend that people run out and buy it, if only to read about what went on behind some of the greatest accomplishments of modern medicine and research and, of course, to see how this woman was treated. With each turn of the page a new emotion is brought to the surface as a battle between science and ethics rages. You don’t need to pick a side, but you do need an opinion.

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