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Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I read this book last year and it was one of my favorites for 2019. If you’re looking for something to read that discusses a medical subject that is not related to pandemics at all, then this might be a good one to pick up right now. You can help support this blog by clicking on my Amazon affiliate links.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a journalistic investigation into the origin of the HeLa cell line used in a wide range of medical and biological research.

This book relates the authors search for the origin of the cells and the person behind it. While attempts had previously been made, Skloot was able to finally reach an understanding with the remaining family members to discover the story behind the cells.

Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American women who worked as a tobacco farmer and sought help at Johns Hopkins when she developed cervical cancer. During the course of her treatment, a doctor took a sample of her cells and then proceeded to use them in ongoing research without her informed consent. Mrs. Lacks’ cells were the first that were able to be sustained and grown repeatedly and finally allowed cell culture technology to flourish, leading to numerous discoveries and therapies, even today.

This books delves into the ethics of medical research and informed consent and looks at how our current system for this research has developed. At the time when Henrietta’s cells were collected, these ethical concerns had never been considered. Part this story also concerns racism and how society took advantage of African Americans through medical research.

Henrietta’s remaining family finally learned that her cells had been propagated and sold by biological supply companies, earning a vast amount of profit for everyone except her family. This resentment made it difficult for the author to communicate with them, but she worked to overcome their fears and much of the book is about her relationship with them.

I listened to the audiobook version of this and it was a great book to read and one of my favorites from 2019.

Read more of my reviews here.

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