I wasn’t particularly excited to read this book because it was a requirement for a class I am taking, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I anticipated. The book has been on and off the indie bestseller list for at least a year and I understand why. It tells a compelling story of a woman who was completely unrecognized for a great contribution for decades. The book was quite interesting and I think it should be read because the subject matter affects us all. No one can or should ignore the things that Henrietta Lacks has done for us.
The book is about a group of very important cells called HeLa. These cells are immortal, meaning that they do not die. They are often frozen, but as soon as they thaw they continue to multiply at an amazing rate. This cells have been alive since the 1950s and they have helped to cure many diseases, including creating the polio vaccine and the HPV vaccine. Although this subject in itself is fascinating, the book is truly about a woman. The HeLa cells are cervical cancer cells that came from a very sick woman named Henrietta Lacks. This book is not about noting the achievements of scientists who used these cells, it is about a single woman who changed the world and was not recognized for it. The book intertwines the tale of this remarkable cells with the tale of Henrietta and her family. It is a lesson to us all about what it means to sacrifice human rights for science and what can happen to a family without their mother.
This book can be pretty disconcerting to read and quite troubling. It opens your mind to important issues that we don’t normally have to think about. Henrietta had her cells taken without her knowledge and many people ended up profiting from selling the cells to labs. Ideas such as who has rights to someone’s tissue had never been explored before Henrietta Lacks and it is an important issue to consider today. The story is also predominately about Henrietta’s family and the damage these cells have done to them, not only through the loss of their mother but with the constant badgering about her cells. It is by no means a happy story, because the Lackses lived in poverty and had many medical problems, but it is also a hopeful story because the family finally got a chance to understand what happened to Henrietta and her cells through the writing of the book.
It is also conflicting to think about the consequences for these scientific discoveries. Henrietta’s family was subjected to numerous unnecessary tests and emotional trauma in order to understand these cells. Henrietta herself died a horrible death because of her aggressively immortal cancer, and yet we celebrate the scientific discoveries that he cells brought about. I think the book puts a wonderful spin on things by mentioning that Henrietta’s daughter Deborah believed that Henrietta was still in the cells, helping people get well. It is a very nice thought, but the cells still beg the question, was it right to take these cells and sacrifice Henrietta’s right to her own body in order to progress disease research? It is a question we will have to cope with for years to come as science becomes more advanced. To what length will we go to cure disease?
I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. The scientific terms weren’t too hard to deal with and it was nice to see the human perspective behind these cells and their science. It is important to realize that behind all science are human beings with lives and problems like Henrietta’s family. It is fundamentally important to remember that there are humans behind these HeLa cells that made all of this possible. I give this book a 3/5 for my book review.
- Why Henrietta Lacks Matters (boston.com)
- Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (shanjeniah.com)