Friday, August 13, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Minor spoilers, if any.

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Year of Publication: 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, biography, science
Pages: 328
First Line: "There is a photo on my wall of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape."
Summary: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became one of hte most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If ou could piel all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weight more than 50 million metric tons -- as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in virto fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions

Yet Henrietta Lacks remins irtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkis Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with greezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta's small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia -- a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo -- to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta's family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after hder death, when sicentists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliant shows, the story of hte Lacks family -- past and present -- is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

OVer the decade it took to uncovery this story, Rebecca became enmeshed int he lives of the Lacks family -- especially Henrietta's daughter Deborath, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned herm other? Had they kille dher to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so importnat to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?

Source: Back of book

Review: My first college assignment for Hollins University. Although it was an interesting read, I found myself easily distracted through the first quarter of the book or so. Afterwards, it was difficult to put down, except during the bits concerning law and scientific history, which interested me less than the story of Henrietta herself and her family. Deborah is a very likable person, and Rebecca's narration of her journy with the Lacks makes you feel as if you were there, too. I'm not sure I learned a whole lot from this book -- at least, I'm sure I won't remember much of the technical things. But it was terribily interesting while reading it. Anyone should read this -- black, white, North, South, East, West, male, female (although I have a feeling a woman might get more out of it than a man), this book is really something everyone should read.

Worst part: Definitely the medical/scientific/law history stuff. That didn't keep my attention at all.

Best part: I was particularly interested in Deborah's life, especially as a teenager and the situation involving Galen. I also really liked Bobbette, Deborah's sister-in-law.

Grade: B++

Other Books by This Author: None, but she has written several articles for various publications.

60 / 50 books. 120% done!
So, just a little note, guys. I'm not officially a part of the TAG any more because I'm officially too old -- I'll still be stopping in when I'm in the neighborhood, although it won't be too often, because I will be going to school in Virginia. However, I will still be posting reviews here as I intend to keep reading! I will be majoring in creative writing at Hollins University (for those of you who don't already know) and then getting a master's degree in library science. In any case, I will continue to review as much as possible, partly because I'll be doing it anyway for my personal blog, and partly because no one else does! (But please do, anyway!) Thank you all for reading, if anyone does.

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