In general, the only non-fiction I read includes biographies and histories. Most non-fiction just doesn't appeal to me. However, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a combination of things I'm used to...and not. While it definitely is part biography and part history, it also includes a lot of science and investigative jargon that was a bit outside my element. But I read it anyway, after hearing lots of praise for the book.
This is a book that's hard to describe, mainly because it does so much more than it sets out to.
Henrietta Lacks, also known as HeLa to scientists the world over, was a woman who died from a very aggressive form of cancer in 1951. Shortly before she passed away, doctors took samples of her cells (as was pretty common back then) without her consent. These cells, the HeLa cells, went on to grow and regenerate. They soon became a staple in all laboratories and became the focus of scientific experimentation and progress.
This book not only manages to explore all of the details of Henrietta's life and the immortal life of her cells, but takes it further to the legal and ethical issues surrounding those cells and the lives of Henrietta's children. Much of the book focuses on whether the scientific community had the right to the HeLa cells when they were taken without consent and whether the children of Henrietta Lacks, who help Skloot learn more about their mother, are entitled to some kind of compensation from the success of the scientific community in conjunction with research with HeLa cells.
It's an interesting balance for a book-combining family and personal histories with the advancements of science. It also puts a lot of questions "out there" for the reader to ponder:
- Did the doctors who took samples of Lacks' cells have the right to do so?
- Do scientists have the right to sell and distribute cells for scientific research?
- Who should earn the profit made off of cells like HeLa?
- How would this situation been different if Lacks hadn't been a poor black woman?
For me, however, the biggest issues to stand out were those of race and class. How would things have been different if Henrietta had been white? More educated? Made more money? I don't know, but as Skloot reveals, perhaps Lacks was taken advantage of because of who she was. That says a lot about research!
In all, I found The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be one of the best books I read in 2013. It's a book that I wish more people in my life have read, so I can talk their ear off. It's also opened my eyes to reading more non-fiction in my future, including subjects that are out of my comfort zone. How else do we learn but by pushing ourselves?
“She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?”