The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

From time to time, I will review books that have to do with STEM.  Some of them will be very practical like Scientific English and some of them more general interest like today’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

This book made many “best book” lists a few years ago.  I remember the first time I tried to check it out…it had already gone missing.  I figured that it was so popular and so interesting that someone didn’t want to give it back.  But never fear, we now have two hardback editions and a paper edition of the book so no excuses for not checking it out.

The book is about the origins and the controversies surrounding the infamous and ubiquitous HeLa cell.  Even though I’m not a biologist, I have sat in on enough student presentations to know of HeLa cells.  A professor will ask, “So, what strain of cells did you use?”  The student answers, “HeLa cells,” and everybody nods knowingly.

The book is more about the cell line and what makes it unique, namely it reproduces incredibly well and is pretty much impossible to kill; it’s about the woman from whom these cell come from, her situation that led to her cells being harvested, and her family’s subsequent discovery of HeLa cells and their struggle to seek justice for Henrietta Lacks.

The book is organized into three sections: Life, Death, and Immortality.  Each section has a number of chapters with the dates pertaining to that chapter.  Because I didn’t look at the table of contents before reading the book, I found the going back and forth between the different years a bit confusing.

I wish there could have been more about Henrietta Lacks and her personality and upbringing, but it’s no surprise that little historical information exists about a poor black woman who lived in the 1950s.  I did find it heartening that the doctor who harvested the HeLa cells, although under unethical terms by today’s standards, acted with good intentions and unselfishly.

Overall, it’s a good book (and this coming from someone who doesn’t really like reading non-fiction) and a fast read.  It covers issues that would make a sociologist salivate (race, ethnicity, class, gender) but that would also interest a scientist or a philosopher.  I would recommend it to most anyone who is looking for a book to read.