Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Stephanie Lam

Sophomore, Biology Major

Remember the general education requirement course titled “What is the Good Life?” for the class of 2016? I mean, how could anyone forget? One of our gateway readings was an interview and excerpt from Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Needless to say, I remember falling asleep while listening to the audio version of the interview. Coincidentally, I asked my friend for good books to read, and he highly recommended this book. Once I started, I immersed myself into her life story and I couldn’t put the book down.

Photo credit: Blog Tutor
Photo credit: Blog Tutor


Skloot begins the book with a memory from her college level Biology class.

“HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last         hundred years,” Defler said. Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands.  Class was over… I sat thinking, That’s it? That’s all we get? There has to be more to the story.

Readers later learn that Henrietta Lacks was the daughter of a poor tobacco farmer in the south who developed cervical cancer. Her lack of a chance to receive a good education prevented her from fully understanding her predicament when she went to Johns Hopkins to receive treatment. Without Lacks’ consent or knowledge, scientists collected samples from her tumor and attempted to culture them in the lab. The results were fascinating, as Dr. George Otto Gey explained, “They kept growing like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions.” At the time, scientists were trying to find a cause and cure for the cancer, but they could not keep their samples alive for further research.

Although the book was intended to inform readers about Lacks, it also addressed many ethical concerns that came with society’s advances in science. When the HeLa cells took off with frenzy and science began moving at an accelerated pace, many failed to address the social justice issues that came along with these advancements. I was horrified to learn that a well-respected cancer researcher and chief of virology named Chester Southam injected living cancer cells into more than six hundred individuals, half of whom were cancer patients.  He did not tell his patients what was being injected into their bodies because he claimed that he did not want to cause an “unnecessary fear.” I was appalled by how one human being could treat other human beings as merely disposable test subjects.  He would have injected an even larger number of individuals had he not been stopped by three young Jewish doctors who viewed his experiments as similar to the research Nazis had done on Jewish prisoners in concentration camps.
I highly recommend this book because you don’t have to be into science to understand it. A science background would perhaps facilitate your enjoyment, but the book itself speaks more of a social injustice in science and in the Lacks family. In regards to the social injustice towards the Lacks family, the saddest part is that, although Henrietta Lacks’ cells saved millions of lives and made many companies extremely wealthy, the Lacks family could not even afford simple healthcare. This book really challenges readers to think about cultural issues as well as the relationship between science and religion.

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