Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks...

Executive summary: excellent book; read it.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died in 1951 – far too young, of cancer.  Her cells were sampled (without her knowledge or informed permission) and turned out to be immortal.  Such cells are incredibly useful for many different kinds of investigations and tests.  Researchers figured out how to grow her cells (dubbed “HeLa” cells) and soon they spread throughout the world of medical research.

That's an interesting bit of science history, and I can easily imagine someone writing a book about that.  That's not what Rebecca Skloot (the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) did.  In fact, science's use of HeLa cells isn't really detailed much at all in her book.  Instead, her book is mainly about the impact of HeLa cells on Henrietta Lacks' family – and Rebecca Skloot becomes a part of that story herself as she researches her book. 

I picked up this book thinking that it was going to be a sort of standard history of science book; a genre that I particularly like.  But instead it was something else altogether, something unlike any other book I've ever read.  Part science history, part human interest, part philosophy, and in places it reads like a novel.  I couldn't put the book down, and found much in it that provoked thought about the conflicts between medical research and human rights.  Some of these conflicts are avoidable, but others are, I suspect, intrinsic to the field. 

One helluva read, and I highly recommend it – despite the New York Times also recommending it :)

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