A Mercy

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Elaine Marlin (05/07/17): I recommend this non-fiction book. It did take me a long time to get through it. The other reviewers covered all of the bases. I want to add my name to the list to express that this is a worthwhile story to learn about, competently told by the author.
Rating: *****

Deanna Boe 05/01/17: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. 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.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
Rating: *****

Debbie Weiss: I agree with all the other individuals who have already reviewed this wonderful and thought-provoking book. Issues in medical ethics are addressed and analyzed. Most interesting to me, though, was how Henrietta's family was affected by the discovery that her cells were still alive and prospering, while their beloved relative had been deceased for many years. Some were amazed and tried to understand, others were angry and distrustful of the medical establishment. Rebecca Skloot was able to gain the trust of some of the family members so that she could write this excellent and informative book.
Rating: *****

Gwendolyn Waring: I was enthralled by this scientific, and legal account of cell ownership particularly as it parallels the true story of the black woman whose body the Hela cells were taken from. A fascinating and well told story about the often blurred lines between ethics, money and research in the scientific community.
Rating: *****

Judy Stanton: I heard about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on a WABE program as well as at a conference where a speaker was talking about issues in enrolling African Americans in clinical trials. The story, to me, was much more than one family's struggles in learning about how science got and used their mother's cells and health information without their knowledge or approval. It gave tremendous insight into medical ethics and how patients' rights have changed over the years. Yet, per the epilogue, the issue of who has control over cells/tissues/blood/etc. removed from a person's body after it is removed (during a surgical procedure) is truly still up for debate. Many of the ancillary stories were very interesting: about slave owners dressing up in sheets to scare slaves that they might be caught and experimented upon (leading to the Ku Klux Klan "costume"); the story of research in a Jewish hospital post holocaust and some doctors' refusal to participate in light of the Nuremberg trials and its impact on experimentation on humans; the story of the surgeon who kept having his patient return so he could take out valuable tissue from his body and the one of the individual who got into selling/marketing his own valuable cells. Also in the epilogue was discussion about genetics and future patents which explained the high cost of breast cancer genetic testing, because one company, Myriad, has a monopoly on genetic testing. Lots to consider, raises good questions, well researched.
Rating: *****

Carol Newell: This nonfiction story is as riveting as any mystery you will ever read, but more touching and emotional. Henrietta Lacks was 30 when she died horribly and painfully of cervical cancer, leaving behind five children. As was the practice then and still is today, her cells were taken without her knowledge or concent to be used to further scientific progress. Most cells die after a few days. Henrietta's human cells not only lived, they kept multiplying. Known as HeLa cells, they turned out to be the most important cells in biological history, going on to help find the cure for polio; being hurlied into space and used to understand cancer growth. Meanwhile, her poverty-stricken African-American family didn't find out about her cells for years, nor did they ever benefit financially from them although others did. Rebecca Skloot uncovers not only the story of Henrietta's life, bringing her alive in rich detail, but she gets close to her family and we become as involved with their lives as she is.

In addition to the wonderful human element of this story is the story of genetics and necessary quest scientific knowledge and the experimentation that goes with it. The argument over whether or not parts of you are still yours once removed from your body goes on today. Irony abounds as the world has benefitted from HeLa's cells and many have earned millions of dollars from using her cells while her children can't afford health insurance. It's a story that needed to be told and it is told beautifully by Skloot. It's a story that needs to be read.
Rating: *****

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