The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Reviewed by Tracy Troxel

This summer, Reader's Reviews is partnering with the Koinonia team to highlight books related to racial reconciliation and social justice. This review is the second in our series. Interested in a conversation about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks? Join the Koinonia team’s summer book discussion on Saturday July 21st at 10:00 a.m. in the Stone Hill Library. 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman, visited the “colored ward” at Johns Hopkins Hospital, because she was too poor to see a doctor. Without her permission—or even knowledge—her cells were removed during cancer treatment. Because of their robustness, the cells named after her (“HeLa” cells) became the foundation for the development of vaccines, gene mapping and other critically important scientific research that continues to this day.

Immortal Life (Crown Publishing, 2010) provides real-life insight into medical ethics, racial prejudice, and important scientific developments. The story is real and raw: The family of Henrietta Lacks, who still live in East Baltimore, and often lacked access to the health care advances their mother’s cells made possible, is left completely in the dark. They received no compensation for their mother’s life-changing donation to science, while earning billions for the companies that bought her cells.

Serious questions of race, bias, medical ethics and science are intertwined in this amazing story. Immortal Life is a story of scientific development, but also one of the human heart, where hurt and anger can yield to grace and forgiveness. The author, Rebecca Skloot, takes time to develop the narrative by surveying in detail the key players in this multi-faceted drama. It’s worth the wait to see how the characters react to the ever-changing landscape where racial prejudice and the ethics of scientific research collide. Immortal Life isn’t the first time that research studies have been conducted on individuals, particularly those from minority communities (the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies and the Human Radiation Experiments come to mind).

When we do not acknowledge our shared history—even if we are not hurt—we hurt ourselves.  While we may not have personally done evil—we are part of a country where evil was done and not to acknowledge that and to admit the effects of that injustice is not loving or empathetic. After the book published, the author set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, to provide financial assistance to those who can’t afford health care, especially those in minority communities. We need to have that kind of response after reading this book. Immortal Life pushes us share our resources (time, finances, friendship) to help heal the injustice of racism that continues to this day.    

Note: This review originally appeared in Readers’ Reviews on January 25, 2017.

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