Old Favorite Friday: The woman behind the cells

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publication Year: 2010
Pages: 370
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group

I was trying to decide which book I wanted to highlight this week for Old Favorite’s Friday, when I saw a headline stating that the release date had been announced for the movie adaptation of this novel. In my excitement, I knew this was the book I had to talk about.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows the investigation Skloot conducted searching for the story behind the famous HeLa cells. HeLa cells are such an extremely important tool in biological research. Essentially, whenever something needs to be tested to be safe for humans or what effect something will have on humans, HeLa cells are a go to due to how easy they are to grow in the lab and the fact that they are human in origin. They have been responsible for countless discoveries and are highly regarded as one of the most important systems to conduct medical research on.
Despite how ubiquitous HeLa cells are in the scientific world, it is surprising to think that absolutely nothing was known about where they came from until the publication of Skloot’s novel. And I am going to admit, even though I have never worked with HeLa cells in my scientific studies, I have several friends who have, and I had always assumed, incorrectly, that the cells had been collected properly and consensually. I put my trust in scientists of the past. This novel shattered that illusion for me.
HeLa cells are named after the woman they were originally collected from, a poor, black woman from Virginia. They were from a sample of her cervical cancer that grew at an alarming rate. Her name: Henrietta Lacks. These cells were not collected with permission from Henrietta, and her family had no knowledge of their harvest.
Skloot documents the emotional story of how she came to understand Henrietta and to know her family. It left me with a greater appreciation for not only the cells I constantly see in research, but also for the importance of making sure scientists hold true to ethics and encourage communication in order to progress our understanding of our world.

This book was very well written, and imparted emotion at every turn. I became so attached to each of the family members, I actually had to spoil the end of the book by researching their fates on my own. The investigative journalism that Skloot conducts is top notch, and she has a heart of gold. The family and Henrietta deserve the recognition she brought them, and as a community we can begin to right the wrongs of the past. A fantastic read!

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