Sunday, December 22, 2013

122. The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by  Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  I really enjoyed this book, which tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman with cervical cancer whose cancerous cell tissue provided the now famous HeLa cells that have been so widely used in scientific research. The cells were taken from Lacks without her permission or awareness, something that was common practice in the 1950s. As Skloot investigates the story, she becomes increasingly drawn into her relationship with Lacks' family, who continue to struggle with poverty even as HeLa cells are sold worldwide.

The story is part history (piecing together what is known of Henrietta's story), part family drama (the current lives of Lacks' children), part historiography (Skloot's account of her research process reveals a lot about the ways we tell history and the sources we go to for history) and part scientific ethics (as Skloot raises some interesting questions about ownership of human cells).

The different story lines weren't always perfectly woven together, but the material was fascinating and very accessible. I was also very impressed with Skloot as a researcher--she possessed a tenacity in following the material over a several-year period, even after an initial rebuff from Lacks' family, that suggests her real passion for the subject.

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