Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Fun Fact: If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings
Review Summary: An impressively unbiased look at an interesting ethical question, with an equally impressive personal account of how this issue changed one families’ life.
Henreitta Lacks is a young, black woman whose cancerous cells were harvested and grown without her consent in the 1940’s. At the times, this was standard practice, especially with black patients, who still saw doctors from segregated wards or not at all. Today, her cells have changed the world. As the first cells to survive and continually reproduce, her cells have been used to develop numerous vaccines and learn more about many crucial cellular functions. Unfortunately, her family never benefited from the massive commercialization of her cells, although this book is an attempt to change that.
I admit, I approached this book expecting an entirely one-sided account, very anti-science. What I was most impressed with at the end was the even-handed treatment this topic received. Although it is clear that the family was treated poorly and with little compassion, it is less clear who should have what sort of rights to tissue samples taken at hospitals today. To help us see both sides of the issue, the author shares with us the opinions of many doctors and scientists on both side of the issue. The author clearly spent copious amounts of time interviewing the Lacks family and the specialists, because she seamlessly incorporates quotes from both into her narrative. In addition to learning about Henrietta, we get to know the backgrounds of many of the people who touched her life. These tangential background stories also melded seamlessly with the main story.
The organization of the book was perfect, switching back and forth between the past and the present easily. A time line at the beginning of the chapter kept me from getting lost and the integration of Henrietta’s story and that of her cells helped keep the connection between the two at the front of my mind. The author also does an impressive job integrating the science behind Henrietta’s cells, with enough simple analogies that I could easily see how a book on a somewhat esoteric topic went main stream. Before wrapping up, I believe I should warn you that their were a few sexual assault scenes that totally caught my off guard but which were part of the family’s history. Other than that, what stood out to me most about this book was the incredibly diversity of topics covered. All of these topics – the family history, the family today, the science, the ethics issues, the lives of the researchers – were integrated extremely well and were always fascinating to read about.