Book #8: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Begun: 1/30/2011
Finished: 2/15/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4.5/5

This book was recommended to me by several people, unsurprisingly given my interest in science, which is well known to just about anybody who knows me.  I found it fascinating, troubling, difficult and disheartening as well as thought-provoking.

The story is as much about the odyssey of the author to learn this story as it is about Henrietta herself.  Short version: in 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer, a very invasive kind.  Before that, doctors took a sample of her tumor.  A man named George Gey had been trying for years to cultivate cell cultures that could live.  No one had ever been able to do this.  Henrietta’s cells lived.  They still live.  They have been grown and cultured for sixty years, and HeLa, as her cell line is known, is one of the most commonly used cell lines in science today.  Its use led to the advent of countless therapies and techniques that have saved millions.  But who was she?  Who are her family, and do they know what her cells have done?

Turns out that the answer to those questions is more complex than you could imagine.  Her family and descendants, by various turns troubled, stubborn, hopeful, angry, generous and confused, don’t know what to make of it or of the reporter who comes asking about their mother — again.  The book asks questions that have no good answers.  But one thing it makes clear is that a quirk of biology  made Henrietta Lack’s cancer cells immortal, and chances are that you yourself or somebody you know has benefitted from science that they made possible.  That in itself is remarkable.

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