The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Book Review

This is a post by Contributor Lori Horst. To learn more about Lori, go to the About page.

Cover of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta ...
Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an unbelievable story that happens to be true. In the 1950s, a black woman was dying of cervical cancer.  She went to Johns Hopkins hospital for treatment in their segregated ward.  While receiving treatment, part of her cancerous cervix was cut and kept by a doctor.  The cells of this cutting were observed and found to be…wait for it…immortal. It is not a joke. Those cells are still alive today and are known as HeLa cells. They are alive and multiplying. And HeLa cells have been the basis for many of the cures that we know today such as polio and invitro-fertilization. But the family of the woman, whose cells were used and re-used for generations, did not know and did not consent. For that matter, the woman herself, one Henrietta Lacks, did not consent to have her cells researched. She may have said yes, had she ever even been asked.

This book traces the facts and the people surrounding the discovery and use of the famous HeLa cells, but most importantly, this book tells Henrietta’s story. The book begins by telling the reader that everything in it is true. That is a daunting statement, but it is verified throughout the book. Many times a true story lacks the flourish of a fiction, but that is not the case with this book. Not only will “cell culture” be revealed to the reader, but also a tender rendering of Henrietta and her family.  Her family is fully-fleshed as characters with flaws and compassion and most of all, humanity.  This book is a compelling read and should be something anyone who has benefited from HeLa cells should know about.

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