Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is remarkable.  This is a non-fiction book from 2010.  I highly recommend it.  (It came highly recommended to me from three readers of this blog.  Thank you, DH, MH and JM).

What makes this book standout is that Skloot ties together a story about race, medicine, medical ethics, science, healthcare and human beings in a narrative that simply flows.  In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.  She was a decedent of slaves, an honest and hard working woman, and a mother of very young children.  Unbeknownst to her, Lacks's doctors extracted tissue from her for research.  Her tissue produced the first cells to survive and spawn new cell lines -- the HeLa line of cells.  The HeLa cells have continued to replicate and have been used extensively, for example, in developing the polio vaccine and throughout cancer research.  Neither Lacks nor her family were asked for their consent.  They were never compensated or even recognized for the contribution they made.  While her cells advanced medical research and enriched some companies, the Lacks family could not afford basic healthcare.  

Skloot does a magnificent job of uncovering and telling the story of Henrietta, her family, the doctors and researchers involved and the breakthroughs that they made.  She tells Henrietta's story, the story of the researchers and what they accomplished and, in accessible terms, the story of the advances made by science.  She manages to get close to the Lacks family (in a loving, non-exploitive way) and share their story.  She challenges the reader with ethics questions, some of which still remain open today.  The writing is thoroughly accessible.

No comments:

Post a Comment