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“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot                  

This is a nonfiction book that reads like a novel.  Rebecca Skloot took her time getting to know the family of Henrietta Lacks, earning their trust over a period of years, and respecting their wishes in regard to their mother’s story.  She puts in the energy and time to befriend and understand the family, to assist them in their personal desires to learn about their mother.  This is interesting book combining scientific and medical history in the context of use and abuse of colored persons, as science and medicine work toward their own goals without considering the personhood of the people involved.

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, yet her cells– taken without her knowledge– became one of the 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. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave. Her family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. The story of the Lacks family 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.”

Summary from our online catalog

Rebecca Skloot makes this family real, and its members are depicted as individuals with their own personalities, interests, skills, and understanding of the contribution of Henrietta and of her loss.  She depicts how they are affected by the death of their mother so early in their lives.  She makes you wonder how it is possible that someone could have something as personal as the cells in her body taken without her permission, knowledge, or understanding why.  And then the medical world goes on to handsomely profit, both financially and medically, from this decision.  The family wasn’t informed of this, and certainly did not receive any monetary compensation for this development.  This family didn’t even always have the basic healthcare they needed. 

This book has earned 7 literary awards (ALA Notable Books – Nonfiction: 2011, Booklist Editors’ Choice – Best Science & Technology Books: 2010, Goodreads Choice Awards: 2010, Library Journal Top Ten, National Academies Communication Award, New York Times Notable Books – Nonfiction: 2010 and Science Books and Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books: Young Adults).  It is well written, technically correct while being relatively easy to read.  While it isn’t a “fun” read, it is an important read.