Nonfiction Nagging- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I'm really not sure what took my so long to read Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but I'm thrilled that I finally have. For me this book married two of my most favorite things: biology and narrative (it is a true story, but it reads with the fluidity of a novel). Skloot traces the famous HeLa cells ("immortal" cells from patient Henrietta Lacks that have been used to study countless diseases and create many cures) back to their origins, investigating the treatment of the original patient and those connected to her since then. The research the cells have allowed has prompted developments as essential as the polio vaccine, cloning, and gene mapping- they've directly and indirectly saved many lives. The resounding ethical question: was it right for doctors to take her cells without permission?

Skloot structures this text so that the reader is constantly being moved from Henrietta Lack's past to the author's investigation in the present. As we're finding out about Lacks and her illness, death, and the usage of her cells, we're also learning about her family and how the exploitation of her cells have impacted their lives. This book is an incredibly quick read, in part due to the overall flow.

The three sections of the book are entitled "Life, "Death," and "Immortality," which parallel Lacks' existence. This process is also something that her surviving family members must deal with as well; coping with loss is difficult, but not being able to obtain true closure complicates matters even more. 

Narrative Style
I just spent a few minutes looking at the negative reviews of this book and was amused to see many say that Skloot has a "liberal agenda" and is "self-serving." While you can absolutely detect liberal undertones (she does think that the family should be recognized, which would therefore be a stab at the pharmaceutical industry... ie big business), I thought she did an admirable job of leaving herself out of the text. We have no idea what her personal life is like, what she likes to do during her time off, or how devoting so much time impacted her finances (I often wondered). Skloot's tone is straightforward but dimpled with humor and wit. Her research efforts must be applauded as well. As Skloot begins to include Lack's daughter, Deborah, the book becomes a little more sentimental and personal, but without taking away from the overall purpose of the investigation.

The ethical implication behind Henrietta Lacks' story are incredible. She was a poor, black woman with STDs and cancer in the 1950s- there was absolutely no regard whatsoever for patient choice. Researchers took her cells and once it was determined that they rapidly replicated they were eventually sold to labs around the world, the Lacks family seeing none of the profit, adding to the dilemma. Race compounds the issue, Skloot adding in additional research on other controversial policies during the time period. While legislation offers more protection now, what does that mean for the Lacks family? Is it okay for doctors to make exceptions to help thousands of others and advance medical science? How should patients be compensated when their medical records are used and generate profit? And who pays whom? It's a really complicated, emotionally charged debate that's simultaneously fascinating and mind-boggling.

My biggest warning about this book- don't shy away from it because it so heavily deals with science. Skloot does a great job explaining everything from the basic structure of a cell, to replication, and sample contamination. I do think some diagrams would have added to the text as a whole, though. 

Highly Recommended
I absolutely recommend this book- you will learn without feeling lectured. Besides being educational, it raises some great ethical questions (which is why so many book clubs have read it). 



  1. Thanks for the review! I noticed this was in a sample document for transition to common core state standards. It was listed for the grade I teach. I wonder if we will begin teaching this novel. I definitely need to read it regardless!

  2. I'm glad you liked this :) I was so pleased with it. She did a great job of making the science accessible. I hadn't thought of how much some illustrations would have added to the book but you're right. I would have liked that too.

    I didn't notice the liberal agenda in this book...but then again I'm a bleeding heart lib so I suppose I wouldn't have, lol.

  3. I second your recommendation. Fascinating read!

  4. I'm going to pick this up from the library. I've been meaning to read it for a while, and after reading your review, I checked to see if they carry it. They do! Huzzah!