READ THIS BOOK! That’s me screaming. Rebecca Skloot has written an amazing book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. On the surface of it, it looks like a medical story, a science book, a novel. It depends which facet you hold up to the light how you will be drawn to the book. But you will be drawn in and then discover a story beyond what you were expecting, and it’s true.
It has enormous appeal also as a treatise on inequality, on social justice, on race relations, on privilege, on … well… nothing less than human nature and major existential issues.
It’s the story of a poor black woman whose cancerous cells were taken without her knowledge, in 1951 at Johns Hopkins. They became known as HeLa cells, still immortally living on and providing the substantive basis for much of medical research on cancer and viruses and the development of the polio vaccine, work on the effects of atom bombs, and advances like in vitro fertilization, gene mapping and cloning. Bioethics, legal wrangling, experimentation on African Americans… this story links all of it.
And the family of this real woman, Henrietta Lacks, had no health insurance and no knowledge of Henrietta’s unwitting contributions to medical science, even as a multi-billion dollar industry had developed from the buying and selling of her cells.
I couldn’t put this book down, and it brought up so many issues about ways that we benefit from others’ sacrifices (when they know they are sacrificing) but also about how we benefit from others in ways they may not have even consented to. Really thought-provoking.