Although I do not read a lot of fiction, I’ve discovered the joys of reading narrative nonfiction. That is to say, stories of true events that read like a work of fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is just that type of book. The author has taken factual information and crafted a compelling story that spans roughly 50 years in the lives of the Lacks family. Although many people are probably not familiar with the name or this story, Henrietta Lacks, or rather her cells, contributed to research that has changed the course of medicine and science over the past 60 years.
Skloot first learned about Henrietta Lacks in 1988 in a community college biology class. Her instructor mentioned the name and talked about Henrietta’s cells, which had been used in research to create drugs that treat various diseases: leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s, and more. The cells, known as HeLa, were collected from Henrietta in 1951 at Johns Hopkins, where she was being treated for cervical cancer. These cancerous HeLa cells were the first to successfully grow in a Petri dish. They reproduced rapidly, creating a new generation every 24 hours, which made them ideal for scientific study.
This introduction piqued Skloot’s interest in the woman behind the cells. At the time, she was unable to find much information at all about Henrietta Lacks. But years later, Skloot began research of her own, digging through any articles she could find, contacting the Lacks family, conducting interviews of Henrietta’s closest friends and relatives, and gaining access to her medical records. The decade-long journey culminates in this story, recreating Henrietta’s childhood and life as a young woman in Clover, Virginia to her final days of treatment and death at Johns Hopkins. Skloot carries the story beyond Henrietta’s death to the lives of her children and their lack of knowledge about their own mother and what happened to her cells. During the process, the author befriends Henrietta’s family and also becomes part of the story.
Skloot writes without bias, especially about the controversial and ethical issues surrounding the use of HeLa cells. She has thoroughly researched her subject and, without passing judgment, presents all sides of her story. Anyone with an interest in biology, genetics, or medicine, or who may have some knowledge about HeLa, will find this book fascinating. For readers of historical fiction or family sagas, this nonfiction work may also prove enjoyable and enlightening. I would definitely recommend the title for book groups, as there is much to be discussed.
Check the WRL catalog for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks