The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Believe the hype – Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is pretty much as good as everyone says it is.

Skloot spent about a decade hunting down the story of the woman behind HeLa, a line of cancer cells that, unlike regular cells, never stopped dividing and so provided the ideal test subject for gene mapping, disease testing, and other scientific experimentation. What she found is that the cells weren’t donated at all – they were taken without the subject’s knowledge or consent and were used for decades without her family’s awareness.

Skloot, a freelance science journalist, is adept at explaining complex scientific concepts to the layperson. By showing us the very real people who were manhandled by the scientific establishment, she adds warmth and humanity to the story. And though the portrait that emerges from “The Immortal Life” isn’t all that kind to scientists, she’s fair and diplomatic and lets them make their valid points, too. What emerges is a complex story that is delicately and deftly unwoven over the course of the book’s 400 pages.

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