July 2020: “The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is a non-fiction book that comes in both the regular version and a young-readers edition. It is written like a novel, so it is easy to get lost in this engaging story.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor women in the South who died of cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment, however, her cells were taken from her tumor and studied. The doctors found that her cancer was particularly aggressive but that the cells they took seemed to live forever. That is, they multiplied seemingly indefinitely in the labs. These cells became known as “immortal” cells and were labeled HeLa (for Henrietta). After she passed away, the cells kept dividing and multiplying. Eventually, the cells were used for medical research, sold to labs around the country and the world, and helped impact medicines and science for decades to come. Yet neither Henrietta nor her family ever received any acknowledgement (let alone compensation) for her contributions to science and medicine. So this book talks about how all of this came to be but also the ethical implications of what is “right” and what is proper in situations like this. 

GEMS recommends this book (and the young readers edition for younger GEMs) because it is really well-written and accessible for all. It reads like a novel and yet talks about some complicated and deep topics in a meaningful and clear way. There is plenty to discuss with this book!

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