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June 9, 2011 / Leslie

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Read by: Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin

Genre: Non-Fiction, Science
Publisher: Random House Audio
Publish Date: February 2010
Format: Audio CD | 12 Hours and 30 min
Rating: 5 of 5

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer. She had been treated at Johns Hopkins hospital and during one of her visits a tissue sample of the tumor was taken for research without her consent. Normally cancer cells quickly die off, but not these cells. They continued to divide producing hundreds, thousands and eventually billions of cells. These cells were instrumental in allowing scientists to create the polio vaccine, cloning and eventually in mapping the human genome. The cells had become virtually immortal and indispensable in scientific research.

But what was known about Henrietta Lacks? Henrietta’s family were mostly poor and uneducated and knew little about how she died and how her cells were used for research. They had been lied to by many people over the years and were hesitant to even speak with the author who eventually gains some trust from Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter.

The cells were referred to as HeLa cells, the name created by taking the first two letters of the donors first and last name. In the early years scientists had the wrong name and called her Helen Lane. As a result of that confusion her own family did not even know that their relative had contributed these cells for research. Science writer Rebecca Skloot had known about HeLa cells from a biology class she had taken years earlier and wanted to unearth the story and the person behind those cells. This book is the result of a decade of her research and writing.

This is a superbly written work of narrative non-fiction. I have a background in science but it was not necessary at all to enjoy this book. The portions that dealt with the biology, research and medical issues were written in an easy to understand manner. The story of the Lacks family was told with sensitivity and understanding as we met the members of the family and Deborah’s story unfolded.

I listened to the audio version. Non-fiction is often easier to follow than a novel with multiple characters so I chose to listen rather than read and I was thrilled that I did. The use of multiple narrators enhanced the story and there was never any confusion over who was speaking. Cassandra Campbell’s narration was a pleasure to listen to.

By now most people have probably heard about this book. If not, you don’t want to miss it. Interesting, educational and entertaining, it’s highly recommended.



Leave a Comment
  1. BermudaOnion / Jun 9 2011 5:56 pm

    My book club read this last year and I really liked it. One member of my book club brought up the fact that the author almost harassed the family to get her story – she wouldn’t take no for an answer – and that did make me think about the author’s motivation in writing the book.


    • Leslie / Jun 9 2011 6:07 pm

      The way it was portrayed in the book was that she was persistent rather than harassing, but yes, it’s a matter of perception.

      The author did set up a scholarship fund for Henrietta’s descendants which is funded from a portion of the profits of the book. That was one of the things that made Deborah agree to help her.


  2. le0pard13 / Jun 9 2011 6:04 pm

    One of my favorite listens from last year was this magnificent audiobook. Fine review.


  3. Mary / Jun 9 2011 6:50 pm

    I hadn’t thought about listening to this book (it’s been on my list for a while) but your review has me seriously considering it. I’ll see if my library has it.


  4. Devourer of Books / Jun 9 2011 7:56 pm

    I’m still a bit conflicted about some of the issues Kathy raises, but this was an exceptional audiobook, no question.


  5. Suko / Jun 9 2011 11:39 pm

    I’ve had my eye on this one for a while now. It sounds as if you really enjoyed listening to it as an audio book.


  6. Kim / Jun 10 2011 8:35 am

    I meant to read this book last year, but never got to it. It sounds like audio may be a good way to go on this one. Nice review!


  7. TheBookGirl / Jun 10 2011 1:32 pm

    My daughter was given this book as part of a science award at her h.s. graduation; I ended up reading it before she did because it sounded so interesting to me 🙂
    Glad to see that the audioversion does justice to the book.


  8. samstillreading / Jun 12 2011 2:03 am

    Glad you enjoyed it, it’s been one of my favourite reads this year.


  9. Alyce / Jun 16 2011 2:54 pm

    I loved this one too, although it definitely was sad to read about a lot of the things that family went through.



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