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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


I found this book fascinating from the moment I heard about it. I knew it was perfect for me. Nonfiction, science-lite, about an obscure fact, sure to be filled with other obscure facts. When it started getting rave reviews, I was hooked. It still took me nearly a year to read it, but I think that was partly worry that it wouldn't be as good as I hoped, and anticipation.

As a troubled teen, Rebecca Skloot heard about Henrietta Lacks in a community college science class and found her life's calling. When she became a journalist as an adult, she started to research the strange story of a young black mother in the 1950s Baltimore whose cells were taken and grown into the first cultured cells for medical research. Along the way, the HeLa cells have contributed to treatments for AIDS, cancer, cures for tuberculosis and polio, and have been exploded by atomic bombs and gone up in space. Her children and husband had no idea any of this was going on for 25 years, and to this day struggle financially, including being unable to afford health care.

While it is a naturally captivating story, Ms. Skloot did have a lot of science to convey for lay people, and a lot of obstacles to overcome in her research, not the least of which was Henrietta's gun-shy and eccentric family. They feel they have been taken advantage of, lied to, and used (all of which is pretty much true) so they are long to trust and were at times very difficult to work with. Ms. Skloot eventually won them over, particularly Henrietta's daughter Deborah who accompanied Ms. Skloot on a lot of her research trips. Luckily Rebecca Skloot is a remarkable writer, and an able researcher who was able to gain the cooperation of those who had both the most to gain and the most to lose in her completing her book.

The book is mostly history, not mostly science, which is perfect for someone like me who nearly failed high school biology, but if science is your bailiwick, keep that in mind when picking up this book. It jumps back and forth from the story of Henrietta's life, and her children's lives, to Ms. Skloot's research. Normally I woudn't be keen on a journalist inserting herself into the storyline, but it makes perfect sense in this instance. It would be very difficult to otherwise tell the story of the Lacks children without Rebecca as our guide into their lives today. Sadly, many of them have had difficult lives, partly due to the early loss of their mother, but also due to the syphilis that may be one factor in why the HeLa cells are so robust and resilient.

One disturbing fact is that even today doctors do not need to ask permission to use your cells in research. Particularly if your medical procedure is to have something removed. It is then considered to be discarded waste, and you no longer have any right to it. So it's perfectly plausible that my fibroid tumors and the mole that was removed from my temple last year could be being used for medical research right now without my knowledge or consent. They do need to get consent to remove tissue after death, but not before. And in 50+ years, that has not changed. Scary.

A wonderful book. Captivating, accessible, telling an important story that is still ongoing today, I thank Ms. Skloot for writing such a great book.

6 comments:

Carolyn Abiad said...

Well, that is certainly an interesting story! Consent after death, but not before is such a strange loophole. I can't even go there...

Brenna said...

This has been on my TBR list for awhile it sounds like I need to giddie up!

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries said...

One of my bff's is reading this now. I'm just waiting for her to finish so I can sink my own teeth in! Thanks for the review!

Suzanne said...

This was one of my favorite books this year. I'm not a science person at all but this story was fascinating.

Gerbera Daisy Mom said...

Put this on my HOLD list at the library when it first came out this summer...and it's still there...waiting.

christa @ mental foodie said...

I'm glad you like it! One of favorite books of the year. I didn't mind at all that Sklott insert herself into the story, I think it makes the story much more interesting and less dry.