A History Lesson

In many ways, reading THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot was a little like a history lesson, a science lesson, and an ethics lesson all rolled into one. Maybe it’s a stretch, but this true story of one black woman’s immortality is almost the nonfiction equivalent of THE HELP. Of course, the stories are completely different (the collection and research of Mrs. Lack’s cancer cells vs. black servitude in southern white society) but the attitudes and laws regarding race at the time were very much the same. It is worth noting, however, that the collection of cells and tissue without consent was commonplace for any man or woman, regardless of race.

Henrietta Lacks died at a very early age of cervical cancer. During treatment, doctors collected her cells (without her consent as was standard practice at the time) and grew them in culture. Unexpectedly, those cells grew and grew to create the largest cell line ever for scientific research. Mrs. Lack’s cells were ultimately instrumental in helping to create the polio and other vaccines as well as providing critical data in cancer research. Unknowingly, Mrs. Lacks became a science heroine. However, for a variety of reasons not limited to race and ethics, her family was unaware of her contribution for decades. In fact, her name was not even identified correctly to the public in spite of the amazing discoveries due to her cancer cells!

Ms. Skloot faithfully tells the story of Henrietta and the family that went on without her, all the while intertwining the science of cell and tissue collection. Having researched the book for more than ten years, Ms. Skloot interviewed dozens of family members, doctors, and scientists. While this book may teach and inform the reader, the language is easy to understand and the story is engaging. The reader will come to know and care for Mrs. Lack’s family, empathizing with their loss and understanding their anger, frustration, and pride. Their voices ring loud and true and clear. Whatever Ms. Skloot’s intention in writing this moving book, she has presented a snapshot of America from the 1950’s through present day.

From a personal standpoint, I am so glad I read this book. Through it, I felt I gained some insight into a people, place, and time I would not otherwise know. This book also reminds me that while some things seem to change quickly (the explosion of science and medical discoveries), others take longer and are more reactionary (ethics and ever-evolving race relations). It has been reported that this book is being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. I look forward to seeing it but am glad I read it first.

A final word to any book club, THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS is highly recommended to any reader that might enjoy taking a nonfiction journey to another time and place. (Note: the copy I purchased included book club reader notes in the back).

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