four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksScience journalist Rebecca Skloot, whose stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Discover Magazine, and New York Magazine, spent a decade researching and writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, her first book. See our profile of her on page 21.

The Topic: In 1951, impoverished young housewife Henrietta Lacks checked into the "colored" ward at Johns Hopkins University to be treated for cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or consent, the attending physician removed tissue from her cervix and presented it to George Gey, a pioneering scientist attempting to cultivate human cells in a laboratory. While most tissue samples died after a few days, Lacks's cancer cells, nicknamed "HeLa," thrived. Eventually distributed around the world in a yield in excess of 50 million metric tons, HeLa has been instrumental in modern medical research, giving rise to countless vaccines and drugs, the process of in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, cloning, and the field of virology. However, despite the wondrous advancements she made possible, Lacks suffered terribly, died, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her descendants continue to live in abject poverty.
Crown. 384 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400052172

Oregonian 5 of 5 Stars
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will leave readers reeling, plain and simple. It has a power and resonance rarely found in any genre, and is a subject that touches each of us, whether or not we are aware of our connection to Henrietta's gift." Marc Covert

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks folds together a sweeping history of scientific triumph and shame, a dramatic true story of Skloot's long struggle to win the family's confidence and a cast of characters whose anger, generosity, pride and improbable grace make them impossible to forget. ... The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do." Christine Wicker

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I've read in a very long time. ... A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain." Dwight Garner

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Though the Lackses do not initially welcome her advances Skloot's persistence pays off as it is her presentation of the family and their perspective that lifts this book above science and turns it into an inspiring story, full of poignancy and humanity. ... In the end, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating read and a ringing success." Douglas Whynott

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family's often painful history with grace. ... Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.' Skloot's book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful." Lisa Margonelli

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Skloot's vivid account begins with the life of Henrietta Lacks, who comes fully alive on the page--a woman who loved dancing and, according to her cousin Emmett Lacks, was the ‘sweetest girl you ever wanna meet.' ... It's a deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led." Eric Roston

Critical Summary

In simple, straightforward prose, Skloot brings to life the woman unknowingly behind some of the 20th century's greatest medical advancements. In the process, she exposes the minefield of scientific, legal, and philosophical questions raised by Lacks's unwitting legacy. Skloot, who deftly weaves together the disparate threads of biography, science, and social history, provides a remarkably evenhanded assessment of the shadier dealings of the biomedical industry despite her obvious affection and sympathy for the Lacks family. Scientifically challenged readers will rejoice in Skloot's ability to explain complex technical processes in layperson's terms. Hailed by the New York Times as "the book Ms. Skloot was born to write," The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks "is an important book, one that will linger--like Henrietta's cells--long after you've turned the last page" (Chicago Sun-Times).