“She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”
Y’all, this is a good book. I read a lot of non-fiction, and this book moves faster and stays interesting in a way where a lot of non-fiction falls short. Rebecca Skloot is a talented writer and researcher, and I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about a woman named (you guessed it) Henrietta Lacks, who passed away at a relatively young age from cervical cancer. Before her death, her OBGYN collected some cervical cells (both regular ones and cancerous ones) for research. He was attempting to grow cells in a culture in order to study how they reacted to certain things. To his utter amazement, her cancerous cervical cells reproduced over and over again.
That was more than sixty years ago. Today, more than 50 million metric cells once “belonging” to Henrietta Lacks — called “HeLa” by scientists — exist all around the world. They helped develop vaccines (specifically for polio and HPV), they’ve been sent into space, they’ve been used in nuclear testing and many, many other applications. However, Lacks’s family had no idea about these cells until about 20 years after her death. Even then, the scientific community knew next to nothing about their origin.
Skloot set out to change that. She encountered quite a bit of difficulty: Lacks’s family was already frustrated by reporters and lawyers trying to make money off some angle involving these cells. Lacks’s youngest daughter, Deborah, was Sloot’s main source of information, despite Deborah having no memory of her mother. Deborah suffered from anxiety and other health issues, making her an unpredictable and unreliable source.
Still, Skloot came back with a story, and it’s a good one. She researched Lacks’s life as much as possible, using her as an example to educate the reader on what exactly healthcare was like for a poor black woman in the 1950s. Skloot also raises quite a few questions, like the ethics and morality behind harvesting a patient’s cells — or tissues, or blood — without consent.
It’s a fascinating read, and like I said, Skloot is a talented writer. Highly recommended!