The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Author:  Rebecca Skloot

Title:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Genre:  Non-Fiction

Publication Date:  2010

Number of Pages:  328

Geographical Setting:  Baltimore, Maryland & Clover, Virginia (plus several other U.S. cities mentioned)

Time Period: 1951-2009 (with historical details included as far back as the 1850s)

Series (If applicable):  N/A

Plot Summary:  History is dotted with unsung heroes, and perhaps one of the greatest examples of such is Henrietta Lacks.  In 1951, the 31 year-old black mother of five was suffering from a terminal case of cervical cancer, and during her treatments at Johns Hopkins, doctors removed some of her cancerous tissue without her or her family’s knowledge or consent.  Subsequently, the cells they harvested (HeLa cells) became pivotal to medical research, helping scientists find the cure for Polio, as well as furthering cancer and virus research as well.  In this work, Skloot investigates the life of the woman behind these immortal cells (that are still pivotal to research today), investigating Henrietta’s exploitation and the effects it had on her family. It focuses on the deplorable history of medical treatment and experimentation on African Americans, but also examines the issue of bioethics as well.  This compelling tale reads like a novel, providing an intimate look into the life of the woman behind HeLa cellls, and a family struggling to make sense of their mother’s legacy.

Subject Headings:  Biography, Science writing, African American history, Health, Cancer, Henrietta Lacks, African American women—history, Medical research, Medical ethics

Appeal:  compelling, engrossing, candid, haunting, engaging, multiple points of view, issue-oriented, layered, thought-provoking, accurate, rich historical details, accessible style/language, dialect, direct, informative, well-researched

3 terms that best describe this book:  compelling, issue-oriented, thought-provoking

3 Relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors:

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present—Harriet A. Washington (History of using African Americans in medical experimentation, science writing, well documented and researched)

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer—Siddhartha Mukherjee (focus on the history and future of cancer research, extensively researched, compelling subject)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration—Isabel Wilkerson (African American history, thought-provoking storyline, accessible writing style)

3 Relevant Fiction Works and Authors:

The Help—Kathryn Stockett (engaging characters and storyline, historical details, multiple points of view)

A Mercy—Toni Morrison (haunting tone, historical frame, compelling storyline)

Passing—Nella Larsen (issue-oriented, thought-provoking, historical context, African American experience)



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