My friend who has just begun her PhD studies in Neuroscience suggested reading Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. My initial reaction to science-based literature is one of immediate aversion. Because I study languages and literature, subjects closely related to math usually invoke a certain anxiety. That’s not to say literature and language studies aren’t sciences in their own right, but they go nowhere near the periodic table.
I decided to challenge myself with science non-fiction literature, and to my surprise it was not a challenge in the slightest. Skloot narrates Henrietta Lacks’ journey of life and afterlife through her own journey as a journalist/detective. I found myself trying to tie pieces of Henrietta’s story together before the plot could unfold.
A brief synopsis of the book: Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer and mother of five who died of cervical cancer induced by Human Papillomavirus (HPV). She was treated at Johns Hopkins, one of the only US hospitals to treat black patients at the time. Researchers of Johns Hopkins took cell samples from any and all patients without their consent for experiments. Most cells when cultured would die. Henrietta’s cancer cells did not. They still live on today.
Henrietta’s cells, or HeLa cells, were mass produced and shipped out to scientists around the globe for “research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits”. The book, however, does not focus primarily on the research. Skloot hits on the racial politics of medicine and the constant troubles of the Lacks clan, proving herself to be a skilled journalist and brilliant biographer.
I found many of the book’s facts disturbing, yet fascinating: African Americans’ unfortunate history in medical research, the Lacks family’s lack of knowledge, recognition and financial compensation of their mother’s HeLa cells, and what can happen to my own cells. To this day there are no laws in place to ensure that the mole I had removed as an 8 year-old isn’t used in research without my consent. After surgery, any removed tissue, etc doesn’t physically or legally belong to you any longer. This then can become research material. Labs across the nation keep samples for years. Many will not be touched, others will be used for experiments, and others will be so successful that they could be passed around the globe for further studies. Leaving you, the patient, unaware.
Now watch the book trailer: