Book Club Pick: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Cover - The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI first heard about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot way back in November when I found it through a website called Make Me Required Reading which makes recommendations and highlights books that might be worthwhile in terms of educational value to be used in the classroom.  It sounded fascinating then, but I promptly forgot all about it until it came up as one of the suggestions for my book club to read in to discuss at our next meeting.

We tossed around quite a few titles, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; Let The World Spin, by Colum McCann; The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; and The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich were just a few that were considered.  Revolutionary Road and Henrietta Lacks were in a dead heat until the tie was broken over a game of bocce on Sunday and one of my teammates cast her vote for Henrietta Lacks.

Chick with Books listed this as a book with buzz in a Sunday Salon post a few weeks ago and helpfully pointed out that you can read an excerpt on Oprah’s Site.

Suzanne at Bibliosue did a really nice summary of the book:

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman living in the Baltimore area in the late 1940s. She was married and had five children; after the birth of her fifth child she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the hospital (Johns Hopkins, at that time one of the few hospitals in the area who would treat “colored” patients), her cancerous tumor was removed and the cells sent to a laboratory at the hospital.

After this Henrietta’s cells were used without her knowledge or consent and sent to research labs around the country and used in studies and scientific research to make numerous medical advances while tragically, Henrietta died and her family suffered from lack of medical attention and coverage.  I can’t wait to dig into this one.  The first thing that it brings to mind is the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that were performed on black men  in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Researchers in that case wanted to study the natural progression of syphilis and prevented the men from receiving proper treatment even when penicillin was discovered to be an effective cure. Poor black sharecroppers were targeted for the trials, and several men in the study died and/or passed the disease along to their wives and children as a result of lack of treatment. My grandfather was a former sharecropper and could have easily have been taken advantage of in one of these studies, which were “justified” because blacks would benefit from future availability of treatment programs.

The circumstances in the two cases are not completely the same, but the hideous ways that these families were preyed upon medical and research professionals goes a long way toward explaining the reluctance and trepidation that some African Americans feel toward receiving medical treatment.  The Tuskegee Experiment is the reason that there has to be informed participation and consent in research trials today, so at least some good came out of such evil.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Wednesday Witch, by Ruth Chew

This should be some book club.  I haven’t even opened the book yet and already I’m angry!

Edited To Say:  I am so glad that this post is generating such an interesting discussion.  I’ve only read about the book so I don’t have any real answers but please check out these videos on Rebecca’s Skloot’s website.  I have a feeling that they might at least partially answer some of the questions that we all have.


    • Diane it would be hard to imagine us not liking it. Enjoying it might be another thing entirely! I am always amazed at what people can do and live with.

  1. I bought this book last week and I’m angry too. I think this will be a great book for discussion.

  2. You are making me chuckle, because you remind me of me. I can get myself so worked up! Before I even crack open page 1! I am envious of you and your club. You pick such thoughtful, meaty books. I have my book club tonight, and I am just crossing my fingers that whoever picks next month’s book does a little research and finds us a good one. I always come armed with my lists, just in case!
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Ghost in the Machine – Patrick Carman =-.

  3. So, the hospital didn’t treat Henrietta after they removedthe cancer? I’m a little confused about the story, but look forward to hearing about it when your done. And it looks like quite a few other bloggers will be reading it too!

    • Stacy I haven’t started so I don’t know all the details, but I think they used her cells in various experiments and research without her knowledge or permission. They didn’t withhold treatment for the cancer as far as I know, but it did prove to be terminal for her. Her cancer cells were named HeLa and they are still alive and in use today and have been the basis for many medical achievements, but her family has never benefitted from any of that and they struggle from health illnesses but can’t afford treatment because they don’t have medical insurance. The author of the book is in the process of establishing a fund for the family. You can read more about it here:

  4. J.T. Oldfield

    I wonder though if this book will point out any benefits that have come from these cells (and btw, why only these cells?). I know that they’ve been used a lot. I can’t wait to hear what your book group has to say about it!!!!
    .-= J.T. Oldfield´s last blog ..FreeVerse: Ash Wednesday =-.

    • J.T. from what I have heard it seems like the cells were creating some sort of enzyme that none of the cells that they had extracted from white patients were excreting. I am curious to learn about the full details of just what made them so special as well.

  5. I so want to read this book! I’ve read quite a few articles and reviews about. I’m glad that it is shining a light on some pretty shameful events in our nation’s history. The sad thing is how her family was victimized further by being asked for blood samples, etc. This will definitely bring up some good discussions for the club, I think.
    .-= Kathleen´s last blog ..Classics for Pleasure? =-.

    • I can’t believe that after all the money that has been made off of this woman that her family hadn’t received any money and the author of this book is setting up a foundation for the medical care. After all that has been done, this continues?

  6. I began reading this book yesterday, as soon as I’d received it from Amazon. It’s amazing! I’m about 80 pages into it. Great research and even though I’m an RN, I like that the author has explained things for the laymen to understand.

    I don’t want to give anything away for those that haven’t read it yet, but……….I DO remember studying the HeLa cells in my college chemistry class, but I don’t seem to recall the Professor mentioning Henrietta or the story that went with it. Her cells reproduced exceptionally fast and one scientist was able to keep them alive and they’re still replicating and growing to THIS day, so she/the cells are considered immortal. As far as what they have helped…..they helped produce the vaccine for Polio, invitro-fertilization, chemotheraphy and many, many other discoveries.

    It does make one very angry, but this certainly isn’t the first time this has happened. Now, we have “informed consent” and patients are asked and aware of things like this. It wasn’t like that in 1951. And then it brings up the whole issue……WHOSE cells ARE they? WHO does our body belong to? It opens a Pandora’s Box over many issues.

    The author did a fabulous job with research! This is a SUPER book and I’m really enjoying it!

  7. I’ve been looking for this book! I want to give it to my brother for his birthday on Saturday as he’s going to medical school in the fall and I think it would be a good “thinking” book to get his mind going on medical ethics. And also fascinating. It’s out of stock everywhere, though 🙁
    .-= Aarti´s last blog ..With Reverent Hands: Love in the Present Tense =-.

  8. I read about this book somewhere the other day, and promptly had to Google HeLa cells. I’m still confused about how it all works, but then science isn’t my strong point. From an ethical standpoint, though, this does sound like a fascinating book.

    I also read that they did treat Lacks’s cancer (although it does sound like there were some medical errors involved)…and I’ll let you discover for yourself how radiation was applied to cervical cancer in 1951.
    .-= softdrink´s last blog ..House of Leaves =-.

    • Hi Teri. I see that it has been all over the place and every time I see it, good things have been said about it. I hope you enjoy reading it.

  9. Steve

    Bob Edwards on NPR is interviewing the author (2:00 PM EST Sunday). Very interesting.
    .-= Steve´s last blog ..Part II of the Kindle-Nook Playoff: The User Interface =-.

  10. I’ve heard such amazing things about this book, it sounds like a must read. I believe that the author is going to be in my area for a book signing at a local college and I am going to try and get there. I would love to hear her talk about this amazing book. I may wait to get a copy until then, even though I will likely pay full price:) I can only imagine that this book will generate an amazing book club discussion. I’m going to suggest it to mine. I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts about the book Nicole.
    .-= Bonnie´s last blog ..Sunday Salon: Weekend Cooking: Book Club Favorites =-.

  11. Denise

    I picked’The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ for my book club. Does anyone have any discussion questions for this book? I’d so appreciate it. thanks

    • Michele Mims

      My book club will be reading this book, do you have the discussion questions?

  12. pam

    Denise- Did you ever receive any discussion questions for this book? I would really like to have some for our book club. Thanks

  13. Brittney

    Hi Denise and Pam. Did you all come across any questions for your book clubs? I’m looking for questions as well. Thanks for your help!

  14. Pat

    This was reality ladies, let’s not be angry, let’s learn and do everything in our power to never let it happen again. We can learn from history, let’s make it a positive effort to share what we have learned from the book and work toward the goal of equality and fair mindedness.

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