The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
February 19, 2021 | Tracy Troxel
Reader Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway Books, 2011)
Note: February is African American History Month. This is the first of a few books we will be highlighting as part of our observation of this important month.
Henrietta Lacks is an African American woman diagnosed with cancer in 1951. Her cells are removed from her body during treatment without her knowledge or permission. Because of their robustness, these cells — known as HeLa cells — become the foundation for the development of vaccines, gene mapping and other important scientific research even today. This true story provides real-life insight into medical ethics, racial prejudice and important scientific developments.
The story is real and raw as the family of Henrietta Lacks grapples with the understanding that Lacks’s cells have been sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks, along with her family, is left completely in the dark about this development. And, they will not receive any compensation for her donation to science.
Serious questions of race, bias, medical ethics and science are all intertwined in this amazing story. 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. It is a story of scientific development but also of the human heart, where hurt and anger can yield to grace and forgiveness.
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