Monday, December 27, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot~★★★★

Author: Rebecca Skloot
Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Release Date: February 2nd, 2010
Publisher: Crown, First Edition edition 
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells---taken without her knowledge---became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first 'immortal' human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. 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. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the 'colored' ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta's small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia---a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo---to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta's family did not learn of her 'immortality' until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family---past and present---is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family---especially Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feelings, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discoveries, as well as its human consequences.

Taryn's Review: Science and I are not friends. We never have been, and I'm pretty sure we never will be. However, this book still caught my eye. I was a little hesitant that my lack of understanding regarding anything to do with science might hinder my enjoyment, but I figured I'd give it a shot anyhow.

Skloot made this book very understandable from the get-go, and the story itself was really fascinating. Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins when she found a lump on her cervix, which turned out to be cancer. A doctor scraped the cells of her cervix and tumor and sent them to George Gey. Gey also worked for Johns Hopkins and was trying to grow cells. Skloot broke things down when getting into the cell information so that anyone can understand what was done with Henrietta's cells. Skloot also followed the story of Henrietta's family after her death and up to the present time. Another touching yet emotional story within this one was the story of Elsie Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta who was taken to a mental hospital as a child and apparently was never visited by anyone after the death of her mother.

I really wrestled with this one on what to rate it. I found this book engaging and moving, but there were some issues that held me back. The first was that Henrietta, while uninformed that her cells were taken, was not unique in having them taken from what I understood from the book. Everyone had cells taken at Johns Hopkins and those cells were sent to George Gey's lab. Secondly, it didn't appear that George Gey had any maliciously masterminded plan to profit off the cells he grew, and he was trying to contribute to science alone in his work. In fact, Gey never benefited monetarily and gave away all the original cells he collected. Thirdly, there was a lot of time dedicated to the back-and-forth of Deborah and Skloot and Deborah's "torment" with the subject. I would have been okay with a little less Deborah information in the book. I also don't know how I feel on the subject on whether the Lackses are owed money for the use of HeLa cells and if so, how much, and it's not something I would even want to debate here.

What was horrifying was the fact that Henrietta's family was never made aware of the contribution her cells made and the impact they had on the scientific community. I don't know what it would have changed necessarily had they been informed, but perhaps knowing brought some closure to the children of Henrietta since they never got to know their mother. The scientist who gave Deborah a picture of Henrietta's cells was very touching and it was heart-wrenching to read Deborah's reaction. Deborah was still a woman longing for the mother she never had, and this was the closest she would ever get to her mother in her own lifetime. It was also shocking to read that Deborah had never seen a picture of her mother until she was given a textbook on genetics by a doctor.

I would definitely encourage anyone to read this book. Rebecca Skloot's time and dedication to her subject was apparent throughout the book, and her desire to tell the world about the person behind the cells was indeed a noble thing to do. Something I strive for in my work in history is to never forget that every source I deal with involved a person who was living and breathing with a heart and soul at one time. Skloot gave the world a reminder that HeLa was much more than cells, but cells that at one time sustained the life a young woman named Henrietta Lacks. A powerful, moving story that you should read!

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