The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oh, this book.
This is one of those few books where as I've closed it I've found myself thinking 'this should be required reading'.
This book has just about everything that I love in non-fiction - intriguing facts, insight into history, and a compelling human element that really makes you think. Oh, and for this book the science is absolutely fascinating, getting more insight into just how research has progressed over the last seventy years.
This book is honestly just gutting in a lot of ways. It's a glimpse into a family that in a lot of ways has been taken horrific advantage of by the scientific community, to an extent that there's really no way to make it up to them. It starts with the lack of consent when her tissues are taken, but remains a constant theme throughout throughout the next fifty years. The Lacks' family never had any true chance to have any understanding at a time when it would have given them any control - not Henrietta, not her husband or siblings, not her children.
That element of tragedy adds a taint to all the scientific progress that's described and laid out throughout the book. Clearly the HeLa cells are a tribute to humanity's ingenuity, they've enabled an incredible amount of research and advancement. But the cost to the Lacks' family can't be ignored and my heart ached for them as I read their story. The idea of companies making fortunes off of research that never could have existed without Henrietta while her family suffers, unable to pay their medical bills, just makes one want to weep at the state of affairs.
The writing here cannot be ignored - there's much here that could have been dry and boring, and other elements that could have been overly emotional or viewed as a blatant ploy for sympathy. For me personally, I found that Rebecca Skloot did a perfect job of weaving her story together, telling us the story of Henrietta and those she cared about, and giving us insights into the doctors, nurses and scientists who worked with the HeLa cells.
Not to be overlooked is the searing insight into the racism that was - and is many ways still is so prevalent in American society at the time that this happened. The fact that Henrietta's children are still alive - that theoretically *she* could have been alive had she not been struck down so young by this vicious mutation of her own body - is a reminder that the past is not so far behind us as we sometimes like to think.
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