Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

I'm not a big science person, so when I first heard what this book was about, I had no interest in reading it. Then I kept seeing it everywhere and it kept getting recommended to me on all my book sites, so I figured I'd better pick it up if only for cultural literacy reasons. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer in the 1950s. Without health insurance, she traveled to Johns Hopkins Medical Center for treatment, where they weren't able to do much to alleve her suffering, but did take samples of her cells for research purposes. Unlike any cells cultured before hers, Henrietta's cells actually grew and reproduced at an amazing rate - rendering themselves "immortal" and becoming the basis for hundreds of thousands of experiments around the globe. Henrietta's cells, referred to as HeLa, have been used to develop the vaccine for polio,medications for cancer and other viruses, advances in in vitro fertilization and cloning, and countless other medical miracles. But for decades, Henrietta's identity remained a mystery, and little to nothing was known about her as a person. Her family also knew nothing about the fact that her cells were being used for all this important work. Rebecca Skloot set about to discover the woman behind this amazing scientific feat - and what she has compiled is an incredible social history of the life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as an explanation of the science behind HeLa, and a balanced discussion of the bioethical issue implicated in the use of individuals' cells without their informed consent. While mired in science, this book is easily accessible. My personal interests lay in the discussion of Henrietta's children and her background - there is extreme poverty, abuse, and mental health in this family - which could have been more richly explored by someone with more of a psychological background. But, for the most part, I found this book simply fascinating - incredible that one person could unknowingly have contributed so much - and taken so long to get the recognition she truly deserves.

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