Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

One of my resolutions for 2011 was to do more reading, and since I got my Kindle for Christmas, I had very ambitious plans to read lots of books…and so far I’ve read two. Pathetic. However, I’m determined to pick up the pace, so in order to hold myself accountable, I’m going to try to do at least one book review a month (hopefully more, but we’ll see!). So while my book club endorsement may not make quite the same impact as Oprah’s, I figure that I should make an effort to spread the word about any good reads I come across!

This past week, I finished book #2 on the Kindle (book #1 was Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which was excellent and I’d highly recommend it!) and it took me a long time to get through, not because it was a boring book, actually it was probably one of the most interesting books that I’ve ever read. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was chosen as the Best Book of 2010 on Amazon, so that’s what prompted my choosing it, along with the fact that I had heard some buzz about it on a few other best of 2010 lists. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I was blown away by this amazing true story, as well as Rebecca Skloot’s dedication to telling it. Being that I was a Communications Major who didn’t take one science class in college, I never learned about HeLa cells. However, I’ve always liked science (after all, I was in Science Olympiad in high school…no joke) so this book was extremely interesting to me. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American patient being treated for cervical cancer in the 1950s. Her doctors took a sample of the tumor from her cervix, and these cells continued to grow in culture. This was the first time that scientists had been successfully been able to get human cells to continue to replicate outside the body, and George Gey, the researcher that cultured the cells, started giving them away to other scientists. The cells get their name from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name, however, her identity wasn’t revealed until years later. HeLa cells were used to test the first polio vaccine, and they’ve created breakthroughs in many areas of medical research including cancer, AIDS, and gene mapping. Henrietta passed away shortly after her cells were taken, and her family was never told that her cells were used for scientific research. Rebecca devoted over 10 years to researching this book, interviewing as many members of Henrietta’s family as she could find, and through the process, she helped them understand all that had happened. For being a non-fiction book about cells, this story is amazingly human, and Skloot never loses sight of that. One of the book’s many strong point’s is its structure; Skloot jumps from present day to the 1950’s and back again, recounting every experience and piece of information with vivid detail. I learned a great deal reading this book, it’s both fascinating and unforgettable…I’d very highly recommend it!