{You Should Read} The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Oh my goodness. I can’t say enough about this book. Honestly, I need to reread it.

THIS was the book that sparked my love of all things nonfiction.

When I lived in Idaho, I was in a wonderful book club with some of the other teachers. Each month one person would choose a book and then we would meet to eat, drink, and discuss. Those discussions were some of the best I’ve ever had surrounding books and life, and I miss it immensely.

Thinking back, we actually read a fair amount of nonfiction, including:

  • In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson,
  • Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin (which was especially interesting because one of our members had lived in the area where the events took place)

The first nonfiction book was chosen by one of the science teachers.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Until this point, I mostly read fiction and nonfiction had little pull on me. It seemed to be a list of dreary facts meant only to inform, caring little for engagement.

Boy, was I wrong.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of the HeLa cells, cells taken from Henrietta when she went to the doctor to be treated for cervical cancer. Due to a mutation in her cells, they reproduced indefinitely, becoming the first “immortal” cells.

Henrietta was a 31 year old mother of five. As an African American in the 1950s she had little access to quality healthcare, and John’s Hopkins was one of the only hospitals that would treat poor African Americans. After a biopsy, her cells were sent to a lab where Dr. George Grey had been collecting cells from those afflicted with cervical cancer in order to better understand the disease. Shockingly, Henrietta’s cells didn’t die like all of the others he had collected. On the contrary, they doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

As a result of the reproduction of her cells, the medical industry has been able to perform tests on her cells rather than on people. Her cells have been an integral part of cancer research, the effect of poison, toxins, hormones, drugs, and viruses.

Without her cells, we may not have a cure for polio or understand as much as we do about cancer.

She died shortly after her visit to the doctor, and her family didn’t know that her cells were being used in medical research for over 20 years. The story of Henrietta Lacks brought the idea of bioethics to the forefront, demanding that people answer the tough question of who owns genetic material and who should profit from it.

According to Amazon, this book is “intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.”

Since reading this book, my interests have widened to a variety of subjects. I’ve read about the consequences of unconscious and snap decisions in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the death of Abraham Lincoln at the hands of John Wilkes Booth in Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly, and the origins of the universe in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

My list of nonfiction books and subjects continues to lengthen, and I look forward to retirement when I might finally have enough time to read them all!

If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks before reading the book, you can read the Johns Hopkins’ article The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

You can also read an interview by National Geographic with Rebecca Skloot

What books have impacted you or changed the way you view a particular genre?

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