Monday, August 23, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

How does someone live forever? I guess that depends on how you define living. Henrietta Lacks, in many ways, was not immortal. She did not live forever; she died in the 1950s. But scientists took some of her cells, and HeLa, as the cells are called, continued to live, grow, divide, and be studied. Scientists all around the world studied HeLa. It was part of the development of the polio vaccine. But the contributions of Henrietta, the woman, did not receive acknowledgment; her family had no idea that cells had been taken, that they had been so important to science, and that people had made large amounts of money off of these cells. Her family (husband and children, and now grandchildren) struggled and faced a number of hardships throughout their lives, including going without medical coverage. When they learned about the contributions that their mother's cells had made, they didn't really understand all the scientific implications, and were angered by the way their mother had been treated, and wanted to know if they would see any of the financial benefit from HeLa.

Rebecca Skloot managed to balance a story of science with a very interesting human story. Class, race, politics, gender, and education all play a part in this story. It's incredibly readable, even to someone (like me) with very little scientific or medical understanding. There was a point in the story, after talking about how the Lacks family had been exploited, that I wondered if Skloot was engaging in some kind of this herself for the purpose of the book, but that's when she stepped in and talked about The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which made me see how aware she was of this perception. Visit Rebecca Skloot's website for more information about Henrietta Lacks the book and the person.

Find it at IndieBound.

Read it with:
Swann by Carol Shields
Bad Blood by James H. Jones
Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington

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