Book Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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Helpful Score: 16

As someone who has worked in labs and often heard about HeLa cells, I looked forward to learning more about their origins. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks started off as riveting storytelling about Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman being treated at Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer in the 1950s. Without her knowledge, a biopsy of her tumor was used to create the first immortal human cell line, which was then used in myriad ways to advance scientific knowledge. Initially Rebecca Skloot was adroitly juggling three story lines—Henrietta's life story, the scientific breakthroughs, and approaching the scarred Lacks family—but the rhythm disappeared when she was left with primarily Henrietta's descendants. Skloot has invested considerable time and patience to ingratiate herself to the Lackses; perhaps that is why the story continues for several chapters after Henrietta's reach ends and the cells are almost always referred to as "Henrietta's cells." It's astonishing to see the level of miscommunication and disconnect between the scientists and the family. The Afterword is an interesting and more neutral look at the ethics of property rights on biological material.