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


  1. My good friend Ellen has trouble posting on this page so I am putting her comment and my reply on here myself:
    "I believe this woman was black, was she not? If I'm wrong, correct me; but if I'm right, you probably ought to have that somewhere in your blog. I would put a comment but still can't figure out how to subscribe to your blog so comments appear. The anger of the family comes centrally from their having been black - and that means in the 1950s _necessarily_ poor (except a very rare few, say like Michelle Obama who did come from the rare elite black population in the US, or someone like Barack, half-white with a Ph.D. mother and businessman Indonesian stepfather.) The girl was taken such advantage of because she was black too."

    My reply [the girl Ellen refers to is Henrietta's daughter, Deborah]:
    "I deliberately left out the fact that she was black although I did add in the blog the comment that the book is about race relations. I wanted the fact that they were poor and under educated to be the issue with the family's ignorance of the use of the cells - probably because I thought that would be more important to Brit readers than the 'black issue'. Maybe I was wrong to do this? I am going to put your comment and my answer on the blog page because I think they are important and also because I feel that American and Brit readers do read books in differing ways, from different cultural angles as it were. What do you think Ellen?"

  2. Ellen's reply:
    "Yes if I guessed the book was about what I thought it was you had to have left out her blackness deliberately. And yes put my comment on your blog as a way of getting it in -- for Gwyn, the blackness is the key. They were poor and undereducated because they were black. The blackness comes first; it's the root of everything else, including their deep sense of violation and injury. Race is central to US life, even in the more attenuated form we now have it -- not backed by institutions, having a black president (though note he's half-black, with a half-white mother, white grandparents, lived in Haiwaii where race plays out very differently than most of the US). I know that in many areas one can point to other causes for things (as in this one the poverty is also class based -- there is an upper class however tiny of blacks), but when people do that they are (in effect) supporting racism by erasing it -- even when I know now you would never do this. A good analogy is those who discuss the civil war: central was slavery; it really was the center of US politics leading up to the civil war and its center. Those who sideliine it - and nowadays very rare -- almost do not bring it up, are supporting the old establishment and racism stemming from that. The Republicans, Gwyn have been able to take over the south as a result of racism, and the present deeply reactionary trends of leadership come from the tea-bagger party; these people are deeply racist. So it's also important to bring this up over this book since racism is so central still."
    My reply:
    "Perhaps, to clarify my reason for leaving out the fact that Henrietta was black was because I didn't want Brit readers to think 'oh, another 'black book' because it is more important than that. But a Brit reader of this book will see how important the race issue was and is still in the US THROUGH this book, and that is important too. I almost felt when I was reading it that any turn of the page would bring out some US authority saying 'we can't use these cells - they are black....' The Lacks family felt they had been sidelined because they were black and poor and as a Brit reader I felt that their sidelining came from their lack of education which came, obviously, from their poverty with came directly from their ethnicity. But the good things that came from their ethnicity were their wonderful sense of family and community - something that can be seen in many minority ethnic groups the world over, not just in the US or just in black communities."