Book Quote:

“There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing.  Another scientist calcuated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet.  In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowksy  (DEC 21, 2010)

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an enthralling look at the origin of HeLa cells that grew “with [such] mythological intensity,” that they “seemed unstoppable.” They were a “continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample” acquired from Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who suffered from a particularly virulent form of cervical cancer complicated by syphilis. During the Jim Crow era, many hospitals refused to treat black patients. Therefore, Lacks traveled twenty miles to Johns Hopkins, where black people were segregated in “colored wards.” After enduring heavy doses of radiation that charred her skin, Henrietta, who was thirty-one and the mother of five, died in agony. Neither she nor her family had any idea that the cells obtained from her cervix in 1951 would eventually number in the trillions and become a vital part of medical research all over the world.

Henrietta, who was one of ten children, was born in Virginia in 1920. She grew up in a “home-house,” a four-room log cabin that formerly served as slave quarters. She later married her cousin, David (known as Day). Neither Henrietta nor Day had much education. They spent their childhood planting and harvesting tobacco, milking cows, and feeding farm animals. One of their children, Elsie, had an undiagnosed mental condition that left her unable to speak. She was eventually sent to an overcrowded, poorly staffed, and unsanitary institution named Crownsville, where patients lived under horrific conditions and were subject to dangerous experiments. Henrietta and Day had few resources to cope with life’s tragedies and were at the mercy of an exploitative society.

The author expertly depicts Henrietta, her extended family and acquaintances, as well as various scientists and physicians who either knew Henrietta or worked with her cells after her death. In addition, Skloot traces the incredible odyssey of HeLa cells that “went up in the first space missions” and contributed to “the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, [and] in vitro fertilization.” HeLa cells also were instrumental in the development of drugs to treat such conditions as hemophilia and Parkinson’s. Rebecca decided to track down the family and find out how they felt about what had happened to Henrietta. At first, the Lackses wanted no part of her. They were bitter and angry over the racism and condescension that they had endured over the years and had no reason to trust anyone outside of their immediate circle. In addition, they suffered from a variety of serious ailments such as diabetes and prostate cancer, but had spotty health insurance coverage and little money to pay doctor bills. They received no profit from their mother’s unwitting donation to medical science.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks touches on the history, sociology, science, and ethics of an era when the chasm between black and white, rich and poor, educated and unschooled, was very deep. Henrietta’s descendants express themselves eloquently. They are confused and incensed over what was taken from their mother without her knowledge or permission. Nor does Skloot skimp on the science; she explains how and why certain cells are more valuable than others. In addition, she discusses the legal and moral issues raised when someone takes tissue from a patient and then gives or sells it to researchers. Rebecca admits that “the Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 413 readers
PUBLISHER: Crown; First Edition edition (February 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Rebecca Skloot
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another interesting book:

Don’t Sleep There are Snakes by Daniel Everett


December 21, 2010 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Non-fiction, US South, y Award Winning Author

2 Responses

  1. poornima - December 21, 2010


    I am really looking forward to reading this book. Sounds wonderful! thanks for a nice review.


  2. booklover10 - January 9, 2011

    Thanks so much. This is arguably one of the best books of 2010. It is unforgettable.

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