Book Club: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Um, so I haven’t finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks yet. It’s been difficult for me to get through, to be honest. It doesn’t have enough of a narrative to keep me interested and the first 3/4 of the book is too science-y/ fact-driven for my taste. I have about 40 pages to go and it’s getting a bit more interesting, but I wish it would have picked up earlier in the book so I could have finished by now. When my leisure/ reading time is limited, it’s hard to stick with a book that’s boring me while there are so many other things I could read.

All this is to say, I’m sorry! I can’t really lead a book club discussion on this one. But those of you who have read the book, please feel free to pose some discussion questions or comment on what stood out to you.

Fortunately, I’m very excited about next month’s book club selection, “This is Where I Leave You,” and I’m positive we’ll have a great discussion about it at the end of April. You can buy the paperback version of This is Where I Leave You here, and the kindle version here.


  1. I read the book a while back but if anyone has any science-related questions, I work in the genetics field so I am happy to try and help!

    1. Avatar photo Addie Pray says:

      Ok, here’s a question for you: I have two spots on the tops of my feet – in the same place right on top of my foot – like where a Mary Jane shoe strap would go. It looks like I”ve been wearing shoes that are pinching the tops of my feet or something. But I haven’t. So where on earth did these spots come from? They’re like a dime-sized patch of dry skin – same spot on each foot. But they doesn’t hurt or anything. So what is it? Am I dying?

      Come on, this is sciency, no? No one can tell me what they are. I’ve had the spots since about January. I’m definitely dying. That’s got to be it.

      Wait, could it be from yoga, when we sit Japanese style?

      1. Sounds like stigmata to me… do you have them on your palms, as well?

      2. Avatar photo Addie Pray says:

        Haha, that’s exactly what my friends in Mexico called them! (Which is why I know I’ve had them since January.)

      3. painted_lady says:

        I got them when I was doing Bikram. Something about being all sweaty and sitting with your feet against the mat tops-down rubs them raw and then makes calluses, I think.

    2. Avatar photo caitie_didnt says:

      Shell, what type of work do you do? I did an undergrad in molecular biology & genetics and then decided I couldn’t do lab work forever, so switched to Epidemiology!

      1. Caitie, I’m a genetic counselor. I work in an adult and pediatric clinic with a focus on cancer, cardiology and neurology.

      2. Avatar photo caitie_didnt says:

        OH MY GOD.

        I want to be a genetic counsellor! I want to do prenatal, though. What state do you work in??? Tell me what you love about it (and what you don’t like)!

  2. Eek, how is it the end of the month already?? I’m only like a third of the way through…oops.

    1. I’m only about a third of the way through as well. I picked this up last week and I’m usually a pretty fast reader, but I just couldn’t get interested in this. I mean, the idea of it is interesting – this feat of science originating from this relatively unknown woman, and all the (what we would now recognize as) ethical violations that occurred in the course of coming to this breakthrough. But although I don’t think it’s badly written, something about this really isn’t captivating me. I don’t think I’ll finish it, although I am glad I know about this.

  3. kerrycontrary says:

    I usually finish books quickly, as in hours, but this one I definitely stretched out over weeks. While I thought the subject of the book was interesting I wasn’t particularly fond of the writing style-jumping around between narratives, switching from past to present. I also think the book was too long length-wise, especially as the storyline was incredibly slow. While I’m thankful of the knowledge I gained by reading this book it wasn’t my favorites and I would not re-read it. I thought it was going to be great since it’s been so popular, but I am going to assume that’s because of the subject it covers rather than the quality of writing and story-telling (yes, it’s nonfiction but you can tell nonfiction in an exciting way).

    On the other hand, I found it very sad as well as very enlightening to learn how cervical cancer, HPV, and other STDs affected women in the past. Every reason for young girls and boys to get vaccinated for HPV!

    1. Yes, I felt very similarly!

    2. And I also agree the length was a problem. I think the story could have been told effectively in much less space.

  4. I felt the same way Wendy… I tried to read this last year. I do think the subject matter itself is very interesting, but I dunno… I just couldn’t get through the book. I never finished it. I think this is the sort of thing I’d prefer to see in a documentary.

  5. Addie Pray says:

    And I couldn’t put this book down! Just like Under the Banner of Heaven, which I know you didn’t like too much either, Wendy. … It’s ok, we have different tastes in book. But why do I feel sad about that? Like I needed Wendy to like all the books I like for some reason – to validate my tastes? I should have more confidence in myself.

    I do like sciencey books, though. Do any of you guys ever read those “Best Science Writings of [insert year]” books? I love them! I mean, I know nothing about science so don’t think I’m approaching sciency books with some knowledge or anything. But they’re usually in laymen terms so I can understand them. Kind of like the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was.

    So back to the Immortal LIfe of Henrietta Lacks, what did you guys think? I wish I could come up with a really thought-provoking question for you. I was kind of surprised to read at the end that doctors take tissue samples all the time and consent is not needed – or something like that. But then I guess it doesn’t bother me – whatever helps science and doesn’t hurt the patients. … I can’t remember if it was the book or a documentary I saw, but it talked about a guy in California who sued because doctors used his something to help solve something. … I can’t remember. … My brain is mush. I have a filing due today so I should go wrap that up and file it. … But, but, ok, here’s a question: Do you think the Lacks are entitled to $$? But who, if anyone, do you think should pay? Remember the doctor who took her tissues didn’t make any money off of it. …

    1. kerrycontrary says:

      I think that the author did the appropriate thing by setting up a foundation through book profits that helps with the Lacks’ medical expenses as well as provides educational scholarships. Sicne what happened to Henrietta was over 50 years ago I think its too late to point fingers and is probably past any sort of statute of limitations. I still fell weird that doctors can take your tissue and do what they want with it, and then the hospital can possibly sell it without your knowledge/consent. Hypothetically, a person can’t (legally) sell a body part if they want to for profit. I mean someone who is low on money can’t sell their kidney. But they can get paid, minimally, for plasma donations. So should doctors be required to keep track of all cells they reproduce and then sell to labs if they cells are in someway special, as were Henriettas? And what sort of administrative costs would that create? Where do we draw the line on property of our body parts? Do we own all of it, that which we willingly give up for money, or only what’s currently attached to it?

    2. Since you like science-y stuff, Addie, have you read any Mary Roach? I’ve got “Stiff” at home (but haven’t yet read it), and thought Bonk (the sex one) was awesome.

      1. Addie Pray says:

        I haven’t – but now of course I want to read Bonk.

      2. I loved Stiff, and oddly, when my grandmother died shortly after I read it, what I learned from the book was a real comfort to me (her body was donated to science, and Stiff spent quite a while discussing body donations).

  6. Sue Jones says:

    I just read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. I think that would make a great book club pick!

    1. painted_lady says:

      Oooh! I am SO excited to read that – I’m an avid Sugar follower, so I was actually feeling a little guilty that the only benefit I’d ever gotten from her was for stuff she was doing for free. As an artist, that always feels a little exploitative.

    2. Ooh, I’ve been meaning to read this one since I found out Sugar’s real name.

  7. I think I am the only one that liked this book! I thought the information was interesting as well as how the author presented it. I like how she injected herself into the narrative. I feel that her investigation did more than just reveal the history of these amazing cells- it illustrated the horrible journey of a poor black family and juxtaposed it with her personal story of growth.

    1. Avatar photo Addie Pray says:

      I loved that about the book too.

    2. I like it so far, I just have been too often in stressed-out grad student mode where I’m either working or drinking and not getting much reading done.

    3. Avatar photo caitie_didnt says:

      I must admit that I love this book and plugged it HARD for the book club! Also being formerly in the field of genetics, it’s a subject matter close to my heart- but it’s such a fascinating narrative of science, classism, racism and really explains the importance of those tiny cells. Henrietta Lacks is quite literally the most important woman in biochemical research in the 20th century, and it’s sad that her family hasn’t seen any of the benefits.

  8. AnotherWendy says:

    I read about two thirds of this last year, well actually listened to it since it was an audio book. I quit because I just lost interest in the story. I thought with it being this month’s book I could pick up where I left off. And I tried, but couldn’t do it. I really liked the first third but it was just too slow to hold my interest for much more. I like the idea someone had about this being a documentary. Or even if it was two books, one the science story and another the story of Henrietta’s life with the science a small side story. It was almost like the book tried to tell too much and that just made it too long. I really liked the science part of it, but I guess the compensation part of it bothered me. If I found out my tissues (that I didn’t need in any way and that I didn’t even know were missing so-to-speak) were responsible for this incredible medical discovery that saved lives, I don’t think I”d be looking for compensation. But I also don’t live in poverty with little hope of escaping it, so maybe I’d feel differently in that situation. I’d be interested in how others felt about that part of it.

    1. Henrietta was dead of her cancer by the time the uniqueness of her cells was discovered. I don’t believe she had a say in…anything..that happened to her.

  9. Avatar photo MaterialsGirl says:

    I finished it a few weeks ago in the plane back from new Orleans. I do enjoy nonfiction, especially where I learn about a topic that I am not familiar with. I would agree that it got a tad long in the tooth, but overall I felt I learned a lot and it didn’t keep me out of commission from the real world! ( hunger games trilogy: I did nothing for two days but read… At my office… In the shower… It was pathetic)

  10. I have not read any of it, but the author came to my town a couple months ago, and I listened to her talk about it! And read excerpts!! EXCERPTS, PEOPLE. So that counts, right?

  11. The author works at the research center where I was employed and gave a great talk about the book. Know this: A portion of the proceeds of Rebecca’s book sales go to Henrietta Lack’s family – this is the only assistance or benefit these folks have received from the incredible but unwitting contribution Henrietta has made to science. Originally her “immortal” cells were shared among scientists back in the exciting early days, eventually someone took over keeping and distributing the cells as a business and a jillion dollars later, Henrietta’s family has had nothing but heartache to show for it. So anyone who bought the book – you have directly helped her family.

  12. I read this book awhile ago and was going to look back through it and somehow March came and went already. I loved the book though. I picked it up after reading a piece in the local newspaper at home. I really enjoyed it. I work in science though so I tend to like science-y things. Everything about genetics and the kind of work done with her cells fascinates me. Her cells are still living years and years after she died. I mean I just can’t get over how amazing that is. I do think that it is very sad that back then they didn’t have to ask permission to use her cells in research and she and her family were never notified or compensated in any way. How odd it must feel to be told that cells from one of your family members are used like that? And that her name (HeLa) is so common among so many, and yet they knew little to nothing about the person that they came from. Like @Mimi said above they are getting a portion of the proceeds from the book, so it’s something.

  13. first off, mexico was freaking amazing and i would have been perfectly fine accidently missing my flight. as long as i could still have our amazing suite and all you can eat food and drink, of course!!

    i absolutely loved this book. i read half of it on a flight to chicago, and half on the way back. every like 12 seconds i was telling my boyfriend some interesting sciencey thing i read. i loved the science in it, but i really love science, and i also loved the story about that family… how sad. i just couldnt believe how no one actually, fully explained to them what was going on for so long… how her daughter thought for so long she was going to get the disease and how the doctors were “testing” her for the cancer- she had no idea what was going on.

    i think my favorite part of the book was how it wasnt just a story, it was really the writers story of figuring out the story, and i really enjoyed that.

  14. Clementine says:

    If you had a hard time with the book, may I recommend the related Radiolab podcast? They do a great job of explaining the science-y relevance and presenting the human story as well. It had me on the edge of my seat.

    1. thanks for sharing it was really interesting!

  15. Hi All, I usually just read the comments here. However, regarding this Book, I am very fond of it. Yes it is long and technical. But I learn a lot from it, for example some people have no basic knowledge of how genetics work. Take Henrietta’s family approach to the use of the HELA cells (Henrietta Lacks), the daughter was convinced the actual Henrietta was being reproduced over and over again, and she believed that she (Henrietta) actually suffered every time her cells were used on experiments. At the end of the book (I did the audio version of it) you hear about a gentleman that has actually started a company were he can patent the especial enzymes that his body produces, so the doctors can not sell and the pharmaceutical companies cannot be the only one profiting from his enzymes. Let’s imagine this case: you go to the doctor, you are in perfect health, and you happen to be a very fit person with a fast metabolism, what if said doctor checks something in your blood work, and for years he saves the data, and convinces you to do extra test (or does them without your knowledge), and let say after 5 years he realizes what is especial about your fitness, the one enzyme you produced more than anyone else can be reproduced on the lab, guess what, he will profit from it, and you will have no clue that some piece of you was used in the process. Just saying, it happends.

  16. I was really excited to see a science book was being covered here! I’m a huge non-fiction fan and my mom hounded me to read this. That said, I had read this book over the course of a few weeks recently, but I couldn’t even finish it. I agree with others who said the story was not told very well and became a bit redundant so I ended up just putting it down with about 70 or so pages left.

    I’m actually a PhD student right now in biomedical research who is constantly working with these cell lines (not HeLa, but lung cancer cell lines) so I was really interested to read about the history of all the materials I use. It was certainly unsettling to read about the often questionable ethics behind many of these doctors actions, but I can assure you now that 99.9% of the people working in labs with human tissue are doing it because they absolutely love what they’re doing and are genuinely passionate about wanting to better the health of others in some small way. I study nutrition and smoking related disease and I receive tissue samples from smokers to analyze. I’ve even received whole lungs from organ donors and we do wonderful things with the tissues! I hope if readers got anything out of this book, it’s that the field has changed so much and that scientists (at least in academia) are not trying to pull a fast one on you to make money, we want to use whatever is available to us to help as many people as possible. Scientists are actually paid pretty poorly, but that’s a topic for another day.. Haha! I’d be happy to answer any science questions also, and if I can’t, I’ll try to refer you to the proper source to find out 🙂

  17. Elizabeth says:

    I loved loved loved loved it. It’s black history, american history, world history and very much about the future as well. I found it sad, funny, thought-provoking, angering and more. For who couldn’t do the book, Oprah and HBO have a movie in the works – Henrietta Lacks is probably one of the most important people we have never heard of. For those who liked the book – I have another recommendation – The Spirit Catches You and Then You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman – another fasinating medical non-fiction book.

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