Backstory Book Review: The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks by Rebecca Skloot

Despite my best efforts to start keeping notes on how a book showed up on my radar, this one, well, missed the radar. I don’t know who told me about it, where I saw it or why I felt the urge to read this considering I love series fantasy books. Either way, I do remember thinking that I haven’t been reading anything other than ‘how to start a business’ books and I needed a change of pace.

In all honesty, after reading the first chapter, I was tempted to stop reading. I find no joy in reading about how people of color were openly persecuted and treated poorly by other groups of people in this country. It raises my stress level and makes me angry. In addition to that, it was about science, one of the two subjects I dreaded in school (the other was advanced math).

I stuck it out though and was glad that I did. The story was about more than science. It was about a family deeply affected by a mother’s death in 1951 and the scientific breakthroughs as a result of it.




The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks by Rebecca Skloot

As I wrote above, this story is about a family, Henrietta Lacks’ family to be exact, and how the effect of a culture of her cells, known as HeLa, changed the worldwide path of medical research and the impact it had on her family’s lives in Baltimore.

Skloot does a good job of explaining the scientific and historical aspects of HeLa in regular people terms. She weaves the story chronologically which I thought was brilliant because I didn’t get lost in the story. The information was informative and helped me really understand what was going on in the scientific community from the 1950s through the publishing of the book.

What I found more interesting though was the story of the Lacks family. How Deborah, the youngest daughter, never knew her mother; the anger her brother Zakariyya dealt with as a result of growing up as a result of being physically abused by his stepmother and the confusion and outrage when the family found out, decades later, that Henrietta’s cells had been taken without consent and made business people and researchers around the world billions of dollars while they, the family, lived in poverty, barely able to maintain health insurance.

Skloot’s telling of the story is personal and real. I like that she used the vernacular of the family and doesn’t make it grammatically correct for authenticity. I appreciate the descriptions (and sometimes lack thereof) of the people and places she traveled to write this book.

And while it made me slightly angry for the injustices bestowed on blacks, it was also balanced when several researchers who found out that Henrietta never received the recognition she deserved for her contribution to cancer research, vaccinations, experiments the effects different situations have on human cells and medications for managing HIV and cancer. It allowed me to realize that not everyone involved in this story sought to keep the family in the dark or dismiss them as less than worthy to understand what exactly Henrietta’s cells have done for humanity.

I whole-heartedly suggest reading this book. This could have been your grandmother, sister, wife, aunt or mother. And it opened my eyes to the ethical debate of patient consent and confidentiality, as well as patient education.

Below are resources to learn more about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells.


Smithsonian Magazine

Virology Blog: The amazing HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks

Johns Hopkins University Magazine

The cost of HeLa cells from ATCC


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