The Immortal LIfe of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (48 hour reading challenge)

I am so glad that the 48 Hour Reading Challenge bumped The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, to the top of my reading pile.  It is my favorite sort of non-fiction--combining tons of interesting science with people one can care about, and leaving the reader changed by the experience of reading.

The book weaves together four stories.

One is the story of a woman named Henrietta, who loved to paint her toenails red and go out dancing, who loved her children dearly, who was poor, and black, and died of cancer in 1951.

One is the story of what happened to a sample of cells taken from Henrietta's cancerous tumor, and how this HeLa line of cells, with its extraordinary robustness, was used, and is still used, to make many marvellous advances in medicine and the study of cell biology.  The first great contribution Henrietta's cells made were in the development of the polio vaccine, but the list goes on and on and on.

The third is the story of the dark side of medical practice in the mid twentieth century, and how the black, the poor, the incarcerated, and the marginalized suffered at the hands of medical research.

And the fourth is the story of Henrietta's children, especially her daughter Deborah.   It was years before they learned that part of their mother was immortal--that her living cells had been bought and sold for the cause of medical research, while they struggled with poverty and inadequate health insurance.   To learn that part of their mother, who Deborah never knew, was still alive, brought heartache, confusion, and anger.

Into their lives comes Rebecca Skloot, a white woman determined to make the story of HeLa the story of people.  It is a difficult journey for Deborah and for Rebecca.   This book, weaving the four stories together in a utterly readable, mesmerizing, shattering, and poignant way, is the result.

Read it (if you haven't already).

And then read this op ed piece in the New York Times from 2013 that continues the story.  (or you could read the op ed piece now).


  1. I've been meaning to read this one for YEARS. I should dig it out of oblivion and actually do that.

  2. Yet another book to put on my to-read list. This challenge is going to greatly increase my to-read pile. This one sounds fascinating.

  3. Like Melissa, I've been meaning to read this one for a long time.

  4. I remember when we were singing with the city chorus in Glasgow, and I came across this girl reading this book before the concert, while in the changing room... she was our principle soloist, and instead of getting on her face and big dress, she was enraptured by this book, and kept saying, "You MUST read this!" in her lovely Irish lilt.

    My mother pretty much said the same thing.

    You would think by now I would have... ::cough::

  5. Like Paige my to read pile is greatly increasing...and in a good way. Looking forward to summer I must say!

  6. I've seen so much praise for this book everywhere -- such a sad story (particularly the third one).


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