Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body Joseph Addison, English Essayist, Poet, Dramatist and Statesman. 1672 - 1719

'Clarice's Book Page' is the 'reading room' of the 'Elizannie' page at:

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Sometimes a book appears that although one knows its official genre, that 'categorisation' refuses to sit well in one's brain!

A friend rang a few days ago to talk about a book she had just read. We have similar tastes so often recommend books to each other! As she explained about this book - a true story - it sounded so fascinating that it had to be immediately ordered from you-know-where. And when it arrived it proved to be one of those books that once started, refused to be put down.

The author says in the first sentence: This is a work of nonfiction . It is [in my opinion!] a biography, a science journal, a history book, a sociological study of America in the 1950s and race relations, a discussion of patient/doctor relationships that is relevant to the present day, a look at family relationships and more. [Please don't panic at the word 'science'. I did but understood those bits of the book perfectly thanks to the excellent writing]

Henrietta Lacks was an American woman who sadly died in 1951. Scientists took cells from the diseased parts of her body, 'grew' these cells and used them to experiment for other medical discoveries. Boring? Sounds it, to be honest. But these cells were the first that scientists had ever been able to 'grow' in a laboratory and from these cells - named 'HeLa'- all sorts of discoveries were and are still being made including the efficacy of the Salk polio vaccine, AIDS vaccines, blood pressure remedies - oh the list goes on and on.

However, Henrietta's family were never informed about the 'immortality' of her cells and in fact lived in very poor conditions. When many years after her death they did find out snippets of information [or misinformation] about the use of her body samples it affected them in differing ways. The author writes with such compassion about the family members that the reader feels at the end of the book sorry to leave the family behind.

If you get a chance to read this book I really hope you take it! The author, Rebecca Skloot, established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation before the book was published and some of the proceeds of the book are donated to that organisation.

Photograph of the paperback edition of the book courtesy of