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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Staff Review by Becky Pieszala:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks.  She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31, yet her cells, called “HeLa cells” by scientists–taken without her knowledge in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital–became one of the most important tools in medicine.  The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects;  helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, neither she nor her family saw any of the profits. The story of Henrietta Lacks and her family asks more questions than it answers about past experimentation on African Americans, bioethics, and who owns our bodies.

It took over a decade for author Rebecca Skloot to unravel the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, who were consumed with questions:  Had their mother been cloned?  Did it hurt her mother when they experimented on her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

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  • DuRaS

    This issues of informed consent (which was not done at the time because it wasn’t required) is really the only important lesson in the story.
    I can’t believe this:
    “her family, who were consumed with questions: Had their mother been cloned? Did it hurt her mother when they experimented on her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?”
    There is just no way her family is that dumb. The first two questions are similar to what a 1st grader would ask. The last question is pretty good, although it has nothing to do with the ethics surrounding the cells. It’s more about the policies of our idiotic government