Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I’m not a big reader of non-fiction books but the story of Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line that came from her cervical cancer cells in 1951 appealed because of the human interest story and the ethical issues surrounding the case.

Product description, pitched from Amazon - Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta's family did not learn of her 'immortality' until more than twenty years after her death...

The book is well written and is mostly well told, the story of Henrietta, what happened to her cells once they were removed and the impact on her family is interesting and makes for a gripping read. The science is not overdone and is dumbed down enough to appeal to a large audience. That’s not a criticism, the author decided to focus on the human element side so has not gone into too much technical detail on the science thus giving the book more appeal.

The book contains details of Henrietta's life and death, the medical advances made possible as a result of Henrietta's cells and information on the ethics surrounding the issues raised. Unfortunately though the author only half succeeds on human story side as the book started to go downhill during the second part of the book.

Skloot relied very heavily on the co-corporation of the Lacks family to gain information that she needed for her book. The Lacks family could have at any point cut Skloot off and as a result a troubled relationship between Skloot and Henrietta’s daughter Deborah springs up which the Skloot chooses to focus on during much of the second part of the book which gets in the way of the more interesting story. I would have liked to have learnt more about why Henretta's cells were so important rather than endless details about how Deborah refuses to take her calls.

At 300 pages this book is too long but this is a book still well worth reading as it is interesting and very accessible.

Posted by Jess


  1. I loved this book a lot. It gave me so much to think about.

  2. I really appreciated how Skloot was able to combine the scientific with human drama/relationships to produce such a readable book. Never though I could enjoy a book about cell culture - it was one of my favorite nonfiction reads last year.

  3. I agree that the author's personal interaction with the family seemed to take over the second half of the book. I understand that it was difficult, but I could have done with fewer details about it. It was a fascinating read though.

  4. I've been waiting for what seems like forever for this book at the library. This is the first review I've read that expresses any type of negative criticism, and that's very much appreciated. Not that I necessarily want to hear it, but shows that the novel isn't the definition of perfection. I'm looking forward to finally reading it.

  5. (Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea - I found the ethical questions raised fasinating and the question of consent certainly gave me food for thought.

    JoAnn - dont get me wrong I would not have liked a book on cell-culture either but I would have liked more of an understanding of what her cells did and I felt it was never fully explained why her cell grew when others couldn't. Also I would have liked more info on the daughter who died in the mental institution rather than Deborahs phone calls. It was good but I fell it had its problems.

    Avid Reader = I completely agree with you, I am glad I read it and its worth reading but it had a few problems.

    Beth - its certainly worth reading and I would recommend it. There have been one or two slightly negitive reviews on blogs but I think even the others sgree its a very readable and interesting book. I hope you enjoy it.

  6. I agree that this book was too long - I think it could have lost a fairly large chunk of the middle section.

    I listened to the audio version and thought all the different accents added to my appreciation of the story. I don't think I'd have enjoyed it as much in print.

  7. I just finished reading a fantastic book about cancer called The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Muhkerjee. He talks about this a bit and it's a fascinating story. Thanks for the review!

  8. I read this book in earnest for about the first half, and somewhere after that, I started skimming. I thought it was interesting, but not riveting.

  9. I put this one down at Costco the other day, now I might have to go pick it up again. The premise sounded very interesting. Thanks for the review.

  10. I love non-fiction. This is definitely one for my TBR!

  11. I thought this was fiction, so interested to read your review.

    Nice to meet you at the Penguin event the other day!


  12. Hi Dear, are you truly visiting this website on a regular basis, if
    so then you will definitely take good knowledge.

    Feel free to surf to my web-site: increase traffic

  13. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on auto insurance quote.

    Here is my site ... selling Life insurance

  14. Every weekend i used to pay a quick visit this web site, as i want
    enjoyment, as this this website conations in fact good funny stuff too.

    my web-site:

  15. Hi, I do think this is an excellent website. I stumbledupon it ;) I will revisit yet
    again since i have bookmarked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.

    my blog post - stop smoking hypnosis

  16. This is very interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.

    I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful post.
    Also, I have shared your web site in my social networks!

    My web page - make money online

  17. Very good blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers?
    I'm hoping to start my own blog soon but I'm a little lost on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like Wordpress or go for a
    paid option? There are so many choices out there that I'm completely confused .. Any suggestions? Bless you!

    My web page ... drinking coffee