Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"Doctors took her cells without asking.  Those cells never died.  They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry.  More than twenty years later, her children found out.  Their lives would never be the same." - Skloot, [cover].

Skloot, a science writer whose work has graced many magazines and journals, weaves an emotional tale of Henrietta Lacks, a poverty-stricken American woman of colour diagnosed with cervix cancer, during the 1950s and onward in her work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Doctors harvested cells from Lacks' cervix following her diagnoses of cancer.  However, her cells continued to reproduce in the hospital's petri dishes and came to be one of the most important tools in developing vaccines, gene mapping, and the ability to clone animals.  She and her family never received recognition or funds despite the wealth of information and money Lacks' cells have brought to the field of medicine throughout the twentieth century.

It is hard to believe that Skloot provides readers with a honest-to-goodness real life story... but she does.  Skloot peppers her work with first hand accounts of Lacks' children and other family members along with professionals in the medical field.  The work also contains family pictures and images of Lacks' cells under microscopic scrutiny.  Lacks, a woman deeply hidden within American medical history, is vividly brought to life in Skloot's pages.

I particularly enjoyed the social science aspect of this work.  Skloot is able to provide her readers with information behind the discoveries of gene mapping and cloning without becoming too science-minded.  The information is enthralling, captivating, and easy to comprehend without a scientific background.  Skloot's portrayal of the impact of Lacks' cells on her family is also powerful - the mental and emotional anguish experienced by family members makes Skloot's story all the more powerful and poignant.

I read this book last summer and absolutely loved each and every page.  I can still recall the twists of plot and Skloot's ability to make me, a reader far away from America and completely removed from science and medicine, to identify with the characters and feel a sense of indignation at the wrongs they have experienced throughout the years.  Skloot is a masterful storyteller and Lacks' story is one which must be told.

Bibliographic Information:
Skloot, R.  (2011).  The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.  New York: Broadway Paperbacks.

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