Monday, January 13, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“But I tell you one thing, I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you while you stay the same, and that's just sad.” 

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?
I personally don't have answers for any of those questions. Instead, I'm left pondering the meaning of the book and of where science has brought us.None of us can deny that researching the way cancer works is important! And knowing that HeLa cells have helped scientists understand the workings of cancer (and so many other things) can almost justify what was done to poor Lacks and her family. It's an interesting conundrum, and one that I still don't think I have a handle on.

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?”

10 comments:

  1. I keep telling myself I need to pick up this book. One of our biology profs puts it on reserve for her genetics class and each time I process it for reserves I tell myself I will read it soon. Very illuminating and sad quotation at the end of your review. I can see where this would make a phenomenal class read.

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    1. Like I said, I really don't read this kind of non-fiction, but I LOVED this! Definitely worth your time!

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  2. This is in my top list of books I recommend to others. It was such a fascinating read and it let me to hours on Wikipedia, always a sign of a good non-fiction.

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    1. Yes! Me too! My husband teased me about it!

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  3. I loved this book. I studied Neuroscience in college so I had already heard of HeLa cells in the context of some of the discoveries they had led to but I never wondered about the actual originating sample. I recommended this book to just about everyone after I finished reading it :)

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    1. I did as well! I'd really like to get some students read it, or adopt it as part of our American Lit curriculum. I think it'd be great for them to read non-fiction!

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  4. I read a bit of this book when I was dog sitting (my niece is reading it in school, otherwise I would have borrowed and finished it) but I was really fascinated by it. The way that Lacks lived and the way the even in the end she didn't own her own cells is tragic. But the fact that her cells can do the one thing that science so desperately needed- grow!- makes her in invaluable asset to science. I'd like to think she would have given of her cells freely, but I agree that her family should have been compensated, or at the very least, told about it.

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  5. I've been keeping an eye out for this for a while now. One of my work colleagues was reading it a couple of years ago and recommended it to me. I still haven't got round to it...But I think I will aim to this year, particularly after this review. I love a book that makes me ponder!

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  6. A great read - I first heard about Henrietta Lacks in the 80s when I read the article in Discover magazine cited in the book

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