'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks': the destiny of disease
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 21:09
Henrietta Lacks. She was never recognized for her research, which was one of the many stepping stones for biology. Her research saved millions of lives over the past decades while she and her family have not seen a cent of the money from her hard work. In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the unexpected journey of her research is shared.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a New York Times bestseller and nonfictional novel written by Rebecca Skloot, conveys the life and death of a Southern tobacco farmer and how her immortal, reproduced cells have paved the way for medical research and scientific discovery. Lack’s cells, also known as HeLa cells, have allowed scientific advances in studies such as chemotherapy, polio vaccines, invitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. Despite the many contributions Lack’s cells have provided, she never gave consent to doctors to use her cells. Also, for twenty years, her family was not told of her amazing contribution.
Skloot spent more than a decade writing the novel after learning about the importance of Henrietta’s cells in her high school credit Biology class. She sympathized deeply with Lacks’s family because her own father was enrolled in an experimental drug study after being diagnosed with a mysterious and deadly disease. The purpose of the novel is to reveal the untold story of Lacks as a person and not just as cells. She was unfairly nameless as a donor for decades when she was responsible for a larger than life advancement in the medical field.
The whole idea of immortal and reproductive cells and the impact they had on the medical field is mind blowing. How could these cells have contributed so much to science when the donor had been unrecognized for decades? It is unfair that these cells have created a multimillion dollar industry; however Henrietta and her family have never reaped the benefits of her donation. Today, her family cannot even afford health insurance and she does not even have a marked grave where she is buried.
The novel is written in first and third person points-of-view. Skloot has done a fantastic job including multiple themes, controversial viewpoints and penetrating emotions in a 369-page novel. The prologue is devoted to why Skloot became so interested in the immortal cells and even more importantly, in Lacks. As the novel progresses, she again becomes a character in the story which illuminates her amazing 10 year journey of discovery as she meets multiple family members of Lacks and learns about her life and history. Skloot includes themes of medical science, racial controversy and ethics to tell her story and grasps the empathy of her readers. Controversy is steered toward the doctors who took advantage of Lacks and her cells. Her family was not immediately made aware of her contribution, which is bound to bring sadness to the novel. Maybe knowing that their mother was helping millions of people worldwide would have given peace to her children after her death.
Racial controversy played a huge role in the novel. It is set in the 1950s when racial segregation was at its peak. Sympathy could be felt for those that suffered during this period of time because of the accounts in the story. Patients were not given the opportunity to sign consent-to-release forms for their blood, tissues, and organs. In the colored hospital wards, doctors collected samples without even asking patients if they wanted to be donors to research. The fact that Henrietta and her family were not informed of her cells being collected is unethical and disrespectful. Skloot successfully achieved her goal in recognizing not only Lacks and the pain she endured after her diagnosis of cervical cancer, but more importantly the pain her family had and is continuing to endure because of the cells. Skloot’s efforts to shine light on a woman who was for so long unjustly ignored is praiseworthy.
The accounts Skloot has included, the dialogue, diary passages, interviews and pictures, are 100% accurate and have not been altered or changed. Knowing this allowed each character’s emotion and voice to be captured as they told their story Skloot’s writing style is very informal which makes the novel an easy read. However, the technical medical language and background information is very dry and in certain parts can be sometimes difficult to understand. Nevertheless, a lot of new scientific and medical information can be learned through Skloot’s novel.
It is a pleasure to see that PUC has chosen to assign this book to incoming students under the One Book/One University program. More and more individuals now have the opportunity to learn about an important subject in medicine, science and as United States history. Maybe now, Lacks’s family can have peace knowing their mother has finally received the recognition she deserves after the publishing of this novel.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” receives 4 out of 5 stars.