Have you ever come across a story and thought to yourself, “How did I not know about this already?” Our latest book club read, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was exactly that type of story. Written by Rebecca Skloot, this work of nonfiction blends human interest and science to share with readers the life of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cancer cells (HeLa).
While Henrietta or HeLa might not sound familiar, you probably have heard of at least one of them before. Most likely you learned about the cells, and not the woman they came from, in an introductory biology class. Taken from Henrietta just months before she would pass away from cervical cancer, her cells were some of the first to survive in culture. Due to that, they were used in research for cancer, AIDS, polio, and countless other scientific studies.
Reading about the contributions that HeLa made to science is fascinating. But one of the most surprising facts is that the family Henrietta left behind had no idea these cells existed. Skloot’s book uncovers the life story of Henrietta, the scientific importance of her cells, and the path her family’s lives took after her passing.
With so many elements to the story there was plenty for our book club to discuss. Ranging from distrust of doctors and racial issues in medicine during the 50’s, to questions on how a town can just disappear, we tried to cover it all. Our lunch kicked off with the fact that overall the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is very sad. After her death, her children were forced into an abusive situation that affected the path of their lives. The sharp contrast between their situation and the benefits science was experiencing due to HeLa, was striking and spurred strong discussion on whether individuals should be paid for donating cells or not.
We all agreed that one of the more disheartening aspects of the story was when Skloot recapped the timeline of how the Lacks’ family became aware of HeLa cells. With so many reporters and scientists showing up at their house asking questions and requesting samples, it was troubling to find that very few attempted to thoroughly explain what it meant that Henrietta’s cells were still alive. After reading an article about scientists in London cloning HeLa, Henrietta’s youngest daughter Deborah, imagined identical copies of her mother walking around on the street.
The overall structure of the book also caught our attention. Taking breaks from the life story of Henrietta and her family, Skloot would dive into details on court cases and scientific conferences that related to HeLa. The group agreed she did a great job of intertwining the two, yet some of us would have preferred if she had kept herself out of it. The third part of the book, “Immortal”, where Skloot focuses on the Lacks’ ended up being more of a summary of her relationship with Deborah than it did on the state of the Lacks family as a whole.
In the end, while there may have been parts that were sad and sections that felt a little long (did there really need to be a chapter about Skloot reading from the Bible?), we all enjoyed the book. As said above, it’s one of those stories that once you hear it, you feel you should of known it all along. The life of Henrietta Lacks was immensely important for both science and society; it’s only fair that her story gets told along with the story of her cells’.
Join us this month as we read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Yes, it did just make its big screen debut with Tom Hanks, but don’t let that stop you! Check out the book with us before you catch it in theaters.