The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Random House, 2010).

This true story of how Henrietta Lacks’ cells enriched science (but not her family) is reminiscent of the CBS News show 60 Minutes. Henrietta’s cancer cells, taken as she was dying of cervical cancer in 1951, were the first cells to be successfully grown in culture and kept “alive” for decades. The cell lines that resulted were instrumental in many of the great scientific and medical discoveries of the second half of the 20th century. Science journalist Rebecca Skloot spent at least a decade researching this topic and interviewing the Lacks family, and the interviews (recreated, not recorded) are read in appropriate voices by the audio book’s voice actors. The way that Henrietta’s cells were used raises many ethical questions, not least that it should have been impossible to identify the donor.  The whole experience had a very negative impact on her family, which is poor and uneducated and did not understand what happened, but still grasped that it was wrong. Skloot makes a powerful case for why all of us should care about this issue, no matter what our personal circumstances.

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