Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

immortal-lifeRead for: Jezebelle Book Club Selection from November ’13 (I’m way behind)

Rating: 5/5

This book is fantastic. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer in the south who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early 1950’s. During one of her biopsies the doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a sample of her cancer cells and sent it to a lab to see if they could get them to grow. This was done without her knowledge or permission as consent was not required at the time. This event marked a major milestone in scientific history as those cells went on to perpetually reproduce in unprecedented quantities that allowed scientists to use them to develop vaccines and treatments for illnesses like HPV and polio. Those cells are still alive today. Henrietta died of an incredibly aggressive form of cancer shortly after the sample was taken, and no one in her family knew what really happened to her or about the existence of the cells for another 20 years.

This book is about the family Henrietta left behind and the impact of her cells on their lives. When HeLa became famous in the scientific community Henrietta’s identity was eventually leaked to the media and her children found out about it by accident. A can of worms was opened surrounding the notions of patient confidentiality, consent, and bioethics. Rebecca did an excellent job of researching the life of Henrietta Lacks and telling the story of her family. I won’t say anything more, you should just read this book. Now.

 

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