The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of the woman—Henrietta—whose cells led a scientific revolution. Henrietta died from cervical cancer in 1951, but her cells are still used in many laboratories to this day. This book takes you through the life of Henrietta as well her children’s lives after her death. At the same time, in a parallel fashion, we learn about the many scientific advances that were made with the use of Henrietta’s cells, which are known as HeLa cells. The ethical implications of this scientific practice are questioned throughout the book because her cells were taken without her consent. Many scientists profited and became famous in the scientific community by experimenting on Henrietta’s cells, while her family lived in poverty and suffered from health complications. Her descendants were unable to afford medical attention, yet many of the medical advances of the time traced back to Henrietta.
As biology student I think this book is fundamental to our education. I have been studying biology for the past three years, and I’ve had many lectures describing HeLa cells and the experiments they have been used for. I did not know that HeLa cells were named after Henrietta Lacks, a woman of color whose cells were taken without her consent.
This book is great for anyone who wants to know more about the ethics of science as well as the history of HeLa cells.
In addition to reading the book, you can watch a couple videos Gleeson Library owns. The library recently acquired HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, starring Oprah Winfrey. The library also has a CBS news recording featuring the story of Henrietta Lacks called The Gift of Life by Jason Sacca. Both of these videos are available at the Circulation Desk of the library.