Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Written by Christina Lorella

This must-read novel, by Rebeccas Skloot, will take you on a journey of our nation’s past, exploring ethical and moral issues ranging from medical research to race and class. This mesmerizing book, which was named by more than 60 critics as the best book of 2010, is far more than a scientific chronicle.  Rather, it serves as a biography, a scientific and medical history, and perhaps most importantly, as a critique of the racism and classism that remain existent in our country today.

The heroine, Ms. Henrietta Lacks, was a poverty-stricken African-American woman of the young age of 31   when she received treatment at the Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer back in 1951.  During her biopsy, doctors removed a portion of her cells for medical research, without her permission.  Henrietta’s cells, now known as HeLa, were the first cells capable of duplicating themselves indefinitely.

Since being removed from her body, HeLa cells have helped in countless medical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccination, in vitro fertilization, and have been crucial to the “research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and many other scientific pursuits” (Smith).

While doctors triumphed in their victories,Henrietta, the mother of five young children, lost her battle to cancer that same year.

Sadly, Henrietta’s family was not informed about the immortality of her cells for twenty-five years following her death. Researchers decided to contact her widowed husband in hopes of obtaining samples of the family DNA for further review.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, family members share their battles with poverty and the immense anger they felt watching others profit off of their mother’s cells. While they were unable to afford medical care, their mother had been and still remains one of the most vital contribution to science ever. Henrietta Lacks revoluntioned the world of medicine and yet, until this book was published, was rarely mentioned.

This book will captivate you on many levels and will force you to question your own thoughts and beliefs towards medicine and the rights that people are or are not entitled to in the world of science.

If you have read any great books recently, please feel free to email us at  We’d love to share your suggestions with the GV Community!

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