Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Review : The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks ( by Rebecca Skloot )

Buy online HERE.

"HeLa cell /ˈhlɑː/, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951 from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who died of her cancer on October 4, 1951. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific which warrants its extensive use in scientific research" - Wikipedia .

But Wiki hardly mentions anything about Henreitta Lacks apart from the fact that the cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. Nor do the 14,10,00,000 entries that a google search by the same name throws up. With the cells contributing so much to medical advancement, she certainly deserved for her story to be told. Believe me, lesser mortals have had their lives immortalized in literature and/or celluloid. 

Finally, it took a award winning science writer to take up a story like this one. The author Rebecca Skloot has done a commendable job in telling the story of the poor black tobacco farmer whose family still cannot afford healthcare. With a storyline that deals with Henreitta's life, that of her children and other descendants who believe that they have been cheated out of some very valuable ( true to an extent ), medical progress made possible by experimenting upon HeLa cells and the existential debate of ethics in research, she makes the reader go back and forth between various dates instead of putting things in a chronological order. I find that it is something that has worked in her favor and made the events in the book more relevant from an audience perspective. 

She paints a realistic sketch of what it must have felt to live in a tobacco plantation, the stark realty of the black society, their hush-hush existence during the days of apartheid and finally a family that is torn apart by the loss of a maternal figure, drugs, alcohol and not the least, poverty. The chapter where she is first diagnosed with the tumor and the rapid sequence of it's progression is quite scary. But then, that's cancer for you. It's swift and brutal at the best, and terrifying at the worst.

There are quite a few interesting insights into the kind of research that went into developing a cancer treatment methodology. It has quite some interesting bits, including one about the usage of radium. But more startling is the total absence of ethics in medical research in the 50's era. 'Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment' more that summarizes the code on conduct of the medical practitioners of the time. 

The most galling part of the book is however the way the Lackses have been treated. Exploited by all and sundry, they are deeply suspicious of the anyone who as much as tries to gather any information about Henrietta. Sadly, the author's quest to get some recognition for the poor family ends on a heartbreaking note when Henrietta's daughter dies quite unexpectedly.

Science nonfiction is a recent thing for me as I am looking to move on from the days when I would curl up in bed with a Robin Cook on my hands. And my curiosity in this book was piqued even as I struggled to make my way through 'The Emperor of All Maladies' by Siddhartha Mukherjee . This one has a definite emotional connect and it hits all the right spots. But one must have a genuine interest in medicine or medical history to go through it's length.

A great book if (and only if) it is the right fit for you!!


  1. Rightky mentioned ..Only if it is a right fit for us :)

  2. thank you so much for drawing my attention to this amazing book. I'm curious how you came across it. I would definitely like to read it.

    1. Ur most welcome Kalpanna....i got intrigued by HeLa even as I was reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's 'Emperor of all maladies'. Did some google search and came upon an interview of Rebecca Skloot !! Picked up the book on the same day ( Thank God for Kindle )

  3. Hi, Could you please share an email address where you can be contacted. Asking as part of a publishing house looking for bloggers to review books. Thanks!

    1. Hi Bikki,

      Please drop me a mail on . Will take it forward from there.