The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | April

The UN Youth Book Club highlights a non-fiction book every month to inspire you to read and learn more about the world. We’d love for you to participate in discussion in the comments below or on Facebook!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot


Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.


Thoughts on the book:

In many ways, this is a story which should never have been told. These days it is unthinkable that a participant in a medical study would have their name made public, and that’s assuming they gave consent in the first place.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explores the science and innovations that have come from the HeLa cells, taken from Henrietta, but the most important part of the book is the story of Henrietta and her family. You can’t divorce the treatment of Henrietta Lacks, by the medical community, from her identity as a poor, under-educated, African-American woman in the 1960s. The book is a unique exploration of Henrietta’s family, poverty, injustice and mental health. It demonstrates that we can’t just see science as an objective view of the world, divorced from the complexities of privilege and society.

If all of that hasn’t convinced you, then check out the trailer below for the HBO movie version of the book, which is being released this month.

Next month:

Read ahead for May
Read ahead for May


The Glass Universe
Dava Sobel
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