The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Amazon.com released its lists of the 100 best books of 2010, one list ranked by editors, the other by readers.  Here is the top 10 by the editors:

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  2. Faithful Place: A Novel by Tana French
  3. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
  4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
  5. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
  6. Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen
  7. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
  8. To the End of the Land by David Grossman
  9. Just Kids by Patti Smith
  10. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

And #1 is… The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which was an Anderson Book Club pick this year!  So did I think it was the best book of the year?  Not necessarily, but I did really enjoy it.

Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly summary:

Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children.

Well, I like science and I like medicine.  And I am very interested in the history of medicine.  And this book didn’t disappoint.  Medicine has changed a lot since Henrietta died and her cells were harvested without her proper knowledge.  But in many ways medicine has not changed as well.  Informed consent is on the lips of every medical professional and administrator, but that doesn’t always translate to the patients.  This book impressively walks the line between the family who has been used and underestimated in their ability to understand Henrietta’s disease and legacy, and the medical establishment that was working within its (now outdated) regulations searching for a tool to advance research and better treatment.

Skloot does an excellent job in interviewing the family, and expressing the scientific concepts to the reader in laymen’s terms.  Personally, I would have enjoyed more of the science, but I think I would be a minority in that.  Skloot takes a topic that very few know about, namely Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells, but has impacted almost all of our lives in some way, and makes it accessible, exciting, and intelligent.  Very good nonfiction.

4/5

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This entry was posted in Anderson Book Club, Best Sellers, Book Reviews, Nonfiction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. eleanorbess says:

    I like to read reviews that open new fields to me. I had no idea about this woman yet I should be very grateful to her and, ironically, to those unethical doctors. Also, if you like medicine, activism and unethics, take a look to The Constant Gardener, you won’t be disappointed.

  2. Pingback: Spotlight on the Wordpress.Com Book Bloggers! « Randomize ME

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