Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, died of cervical cancer in the 1950’s. Her doctor had never seen a tumor like hers and scraped some cells off for research purposes. To everyone’s surprise, those cancer cells were the first to keep on living and separating outside the human body and spawned an entire research industry. Nicknamed HeLa after the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names, these cells caused a virtual revolution in research and led to cures and treatments for a variety of illnesses as well as a way to test the effects of various calamities on human tissue. But Henrietta’s family received no money and Henrietta received no recognition for her contribution. Rebecca Skloot puts together the facts and gets the family’s side of the story in an effort to earn Henrietta the recognition she deserves.
I have one word for this book and it is wow. I was incredibly fascinated – and at times saddened – by this entire book. I am not anything even close to a scientist and had never heard of Henrietta or the HeLa cells, but now I think that’s a shame. I’m glad Skloot finally got a book published and is setting up a scholarship fund so Henrietta can get the recognition she deserved, even if she’ll never know it.
The book flips between the past and the present, explaining Henrietta’s story and later that of her cells alongside Skloot’s quest to get in contact with the family and then her relationship with each of the individual family members. I read this for a book club and one of the members suggested that Skloot was essentially harassing the family with constant phone calls and visits. While I do think she was especially persistent at the beginning and that wasn’t right, the fact that the family wanted Henrietta’s story told and appreciated the recognition she received for me outweighed the fact that Skloot was pushy in the beginning. I wished that the family could have told Henrietta’s story instead, but the poor state of their education has prevented it all this time. I was pleased to hear, though, that the latest generation is going to college and grad school, so they’ll be moving up in the world.
Skloot really excels at explaining the scientific parts that are scattered throughout this book. I’m not a scientist and I have never really been interested in science, but I was surprised by how fascinating I found the various processes related in here. I was also totally astonished at how unethical the current system is. I had absolutely no idea that doctors are pretty much free to do as they like with discarded human tissue. Some do offer a consent form, but they’re not legally required to do so and it’s perfectly okay for someone else to make money off of my cells without giving a cent to me. I don’t want to hinder medical research but something about that seems very wrong. Henrietta’s family didn’t even have health insurance so they had no access to any of the treatments that their mother’s cells made possible!
This whole book is genuinely fascinating. It’s a completely readable work of narrative non-fiction that brings up a ton of issues about medical science and ethics while telling the story of a woman who should definitely be remembered and commemorated. I very highly recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
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