The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Despite the name, this is not some kind of vampire fiction book. It is entirely true. So how can someone be immortal and this book be true, I hear you ask? Well, Henrietta Lacks is gone in soul, but her cancer cells live on, having been responsible for many advances in science. Little was known previously about her life and her family (and conversely, her family knew little about her cells’ scientific life) but Skloot brings this together in a fantastically written book. She combines the heartache of Henrietta’s family with clear, simple explanations of the research involving Henrietta’s cells and how they were grown in the lab for the first time. 

The book brings to the fore many things that are not generally discussed – did an African-American woman and her family have a right to know that her cells were being used for research in the 1950s and beyond? Should they have been asked for consent? Why did scientists evade the truth when taking blood from relatives? Was there a racial element to not discussing further with Henrietta and her family? Do we automatically give up the rights of research and potential profit if surgeons remove noxious parts of our bodies? 

This is an exceptionally well written book and all the twists and turns in it are true. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a scientist, the author describes scientific processes (such as the cultivation of human cells) in such terms that you wish she was your high school science teacher. As someone who works in oncology, I found it fascinating to see the differences in treatments and the role Henrietta had to play in it – thank you. This was the kind of book that had me reading in traffic jams – a rare thing!

Read it if: you’re interested in how people and science can link together.

9.5 out of 10.

18 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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  1. I also found this book quite interesting, and very readable even for a non-science person like myself.
    The cover on your book is much better, I think, that that for the hardcover released in the U.S.

    1. I loved that cover. Even though I’m a science-y person, I found the descriptions excellent and clear – not dumbed down at all and plenty of references for extra reading if someone was interested.

  2. I enjoy these kinds of books. I’ve always had a strong interest in science and even toyed with the idea of going to med school (business school won out). I need to get to this one soon because so many people are raving about it. And I agree, you have a much better cover.

    1. It’s great, I highly, highly recommend this book. HeLa cells have had a massive impact on the scientific community and there’s so many other issues in this book too.

      1. I started listening to it yesterday and the audio version is excellent. I’ll probably be walking around with my earbuds in all day today!

  3. Every time I go to Costco I pick this book up, read the back, and somehow leave without it. Maybe I will have to make the commitment and finally buy it. Thanks for the review. 🙂

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