I’ve fallen in love with science and writing all over again.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful book telling the story of the woman and her family who’s cells are used by thousands of scientists and doctors every day to research diseases, sickness, chemicals, medicine, anything at all and it’s effects on the cellular level.
In 1951 Henrietta Lacks entered Johns Hopkins concerned about a knot in her stomach. The “knot” turned out to be cancer. Doctors did a biopsy and kept a sliver of the the tumor for a scientist, whose assistant discovered the cells had a way of growing and growing. The cells were named HeLa. HeLa went on to be used in nearly every scientific breakthrough since then.
The doctor never mentioned to Henrietta what he did with her cells. When she died, no one bothered to tell her family that a piece of what had once been a part of their wife, mother and sister was now growing in a nearby science lab.
The story of the Lacks family is as intriguing as the story of the HeLa. I still can’t the images of 1930s Virginia out of my head. The faith and spirit of the family as mesmerizing as the science their mother’s cells changed. In addition Rebecca Skloot’s detailed description and passion for the story make the book pleasurable to read no matter how difficult it is to think about the issues the story raises.
Race, gender, class and science all intersect in this story in a way that made me squirm. It’s uncomfortable to think about how a doctor doing a biopsy can keep my cells forever for any use they see fit, even monetary gain without my permission. Today we have informed consent, but as the book points out no one’s quite sure what that means. Just how informed is informed? Plus once something is taken from your body, the US courts have determined it is no longer your property. Weird, huh?
I first heard the story of Henrietta Lacks on Radiolab which is an awesomely awesome podcast and radio show about science. I love Jad and Robert. The sound design for the show is very cool. Plus I get to learn stuff everytime I listen. It’s like 9th grade science class only interesting.
Anyone with an interest in ethics, race and gender issues or science, should read this book. As The New York Times says, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is much more than a portrait of the Lacks family. It is also a critique of science that insists on ignoring the messy human provenance of its materials.”