Sunday, September 12, 2010

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Summary: In this nonfiction piece, Skloot examines the personal stories, science, and history surrounding the HeLa cells.  The HeLa cells were the first "immortal cells," as they were capable of indefinitely reproducing in culture.  Although these cells are in labs around the world and have been used to develop treatments for and research into the world's most deadly illnesses, few people knew the truth about who the HeLa cells came from.  Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman dying of cervical cancer in the 1950's when her cells were taken without her knowledge, and her family has struggled with their mother's history ever since.

Musings: This book has been getting a fair amount of press recently, and after reading it myself, I believe the discussion is completely warranted.  Skloot has done an excellent job of weaving together the personal stories of the Lacks family (particularly Henrietta's daughter Deborah) with an understanding of cell biology and a timeline of the development of cell research over the last sixty years.  Henrietta's story is intriguing both for its ordinariness and for its heartbreak.  Uneducated and pregnant by her cousin at fourteen, Henrietta nonetheless raised her children through hard work and determination.  But when she died young of cervical cancer, leaving her children with abusive relatives, many of the children entered a downward spiral they are still trying to emerge from decades later.

Going in, I assumed the book would be an exposure of an African American woman abused and exploited by the white medical system, much like in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  However, the real story turned out to be much more nuanced.  Through a history of case law and scientific codes, Skloot shows that it was not illegal for doctors to take a person's cells and use them in research--it wasn't illegal in 1951, and it's not illegal today.  And though Henrietta died of cervical cancer, it wasn't through a lack of medical care on the part of John Hopkins, the hospital she entered.  Nevertheless, there are more subtle instances of racism at play, particularly in the education of Henrietta's family.  Her children only learned that their mother's cells were being used around the world decades after their mother's death, and throughout the years, despite becoming minor celebrities because of the HeLa cells, the family members never really understood what had happened.  They didn't understand the concept of "cell," let alone the complex biology behind what was being done with the cells.  They were pulled among scientists who wanted information from them to study HeLa better, journalists who wanted information for their own pieces, and people out to make--or convince them to make--money off of HeLa.  Through it all, the family continued to suffer, both physically and mentally.

The uncertainty of what happened to her mother had a large impact on Henrietta's daughter Deborah.  In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Deborah travels with Skloot as they investigate the family's history.  Deborah wavers between giddy excitement and terror as she learns more in a few days than she had in so many years.

Although the Lackses' family history is the backbone of the story, Skloot's sections on advancement in scientific research are no less researched or less interesting.  These chapters of the book are also filled with the histories of the doctors who made these advancements possible.

I was shocked by how quickly I finished the book and how difficult it was to put down.  It's a fascinating look at the history of one part of science from the focal point of one woman and her cells.

P.S.  This is the 83rd book I've read this year, which means I've officially surpassed my total read (82 books) from 2009!

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

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