An Enthralling Book About Race, Science, and the Cells that Changed History

Rebecca Skloot's new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is a fascinating true story of the immortal HeLa cells and the woman they belonged to.

When you have a six-month-old baby, it can be tough to even pick up a magazine to skim an article, let alone finish a nearly 400-page nonfiction book about science. Yet I devoured Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in less than a week—it was just that good.

If you’ve ever taken a high school science class, you may have learned about, or even worked with, HeLa cells. They are human cancer cells that have been shipped to laboratories all around the world, and they’ve been used in medical breakthroughs like the polio vaccine. But your biology teacher probably never taught you about the real woman behind the HeLa cells: Henrietta Lacks, a poor black sharecropper from the tiny town of Clover, Virginia.

In this remarkable book, writer Rebecca Skloot takes us along on her ten-year journey to learn about the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were taken without her permission and used in countless science experiments after Lacks died of cervical cancer. Skloot explains the science of Lacks’ “immortal cells”—cells that keep dividing and growing in culture long after they’ve left her body—in a way that’s easy enough for someone who’s never set foot in a lab to understand. The HeLa cells themselves are a fascinating story—but not as interesting as the life behind them.

Through countless conversations with Lacks’ surviving relatives, Skloot finds out about the life of the woman who may be one of the most important figures in modern science. Sadly, neither she nor her family ever received compensation for her remarkable cells, and she was buried in an unmarked grave. Her living relatives are unable to afford health insurance.

But despite the hardships that Lacks’ family has endured, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is, at heart, a hopeful book. The story centers on Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother. Skloot gives Deborah the opportunity to take a ride into her mother’s past, for better or worse, and to peer through a microscope at the HeLa cells, watching her immortal mother live on.

Skloot was so moved by the Lacks family that she has established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which will provide college funds for Henrietta’s descendants. She is donating a portion of her proceeds to the fund, and you can make your own donation here.