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Review: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (Audio)

July 26, 2010

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot would not even have crossed my radar if it hadn’t made a solid appearance on the IndieBound best sellers list a while back.  For one, the topic — HeLa cells and the woman they came from — was entirely unfamiliar to me.  I’m also not likely to pick up nonfiction, unless it’s a memoir.  But when I was looking for a new audiobook to listen to, I decided to give “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” a go.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks cover

The book, it turns out, is a pretty equal blend of the science and history of HeLa, the author’s memoir of researching the book, and the biography of Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom HeLa cells were originally taken.  These three strands are woven together, alternating in chapters that jump back and forth in time.

The science portion of the book delves into issues of cell cultivation and the various ways in which humans, both at the cellular level and as whole people, have been used in scientific research, with HeLa cells playing a starring role.  Some of the experimentation is appalling, yet among the breakthroughs that have come from such research are the Polio vaccine, gene mapping, and cell cloning.  I had never stopped to consider this remarkable history, and I definitely had no idea that one woman’s cancer cells had made it possible.  Skloot gives enough information in small enough bites that the scientific portions are fascinating without being overwhelming to non-scientific types (i.e. me).

Skloot also chronicles her research on the book, which consisted largely of spending time with Henrietta Lacks’s family.  She spoke with Henrietta’s husband, children, cousins, and grandchildren.  She contacted physicians and scientists who had been involved with Henrietta’s treatment and the subsequent use of her cancer cells.  By far, the most influential person on this portion of the book is Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who was too young when her mother died to remember much about Henrietta.  The story of Skloot’s research becomes more about Deborah’s struggle to know her mother and come to terms with her mother’s role in the world today through HeLa than it is about writing a book.  After a slow and rocky start, Skloot and Deborah unravel the mystery of Henrietta together, helping each other as they go.

Finally, there is the brief story of the woman whose cells became HeLa: Henrietta Lacks.  Though her cells have been an integral part of modern science for over 50 years, there have been astonishingly few attempts to uncover who Henrietta Lacks was.  Skloot recreates Henrietta’s brief life, which ended in 1951 when she lost her battle with an aggressive cervical cancer.  Unbeknownst to her or her family, the hospital where she died — Johns Hopkins — kept a bit of her tumor for research.  It is from this sample that the original HeLa cells came.

The audio version ends with an afterward, which examines the issue of tissue rights today, among other things.  This chapter is followed by an interview with Rebecca Skloot, which I found enlightening.

Written in the first person wherever the author is a part of the story, the book has a conversational feel that makes for easy and enjoyable listening.  The reader is Cassandra Campbell, and her reading style suits the book well.  The 11+ hours of text felt like much less.

Overall, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was interesting and informative to listen to.  Well written and well read, its conversational tone and varied narrative threads make the book a good introduction to HeLa cells, their use, and the person from whom they came.

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