Earlier this year, I read a fantastic post from Lany on Glitter, Not Gold about her favourite non-fiction books, which included The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack by Rebecca Skloot. This book has been on my to-read list since it was published, and shortly after reading that post, I finally sat down to read a highly fascinating account of scientific progress and a family’s struggle for information and recognition.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore who died from cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment, samples of the cancerous cells in her cervix were taken without Lack’s permission or knowledge. After researchers discovered the cells were continuing to divide past their expected lifetime in a cell culture, they were declared to be ‘immortal’, the very first of their kind. These HeLa cells were used then for medical research, including finding a vaccine for polio, gene mapping, and investigative research into AIDS and cancer.
In the following years, Henrietta’s name was released as the women from who the HeLa cells were taken. Her family was contacted by both researchers and journalists, all seeking their own story or research piece, inevitably leading to resentment and distrust of doctors, researchers and journalists.
Enter Rebecca Skloot, who sought to tell the story of both the HeLa cell-line and the Lacks family in her research from 2000 and following book published in 2010. Over this period of time, Skloot extensively interviewed the Lacks family, particularly her daughter Deborah, shared her findings with them and tried to address their questions about the HeLa line.
The resulting book is a fascinating piece of writing which examines scientific research and progress critically against a background of the poverty and racism experienced by the Lacks family and the lack of consent or even knowledge of the removal of the cells.
I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone with an interest in science or even a general non-fiction fan to read this. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has to be one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.