by Rebecca Skloot (Pan) ISBN: 9780330533447
Hardly anyone knows Henrietta Lacks, but we have all profited from her cells: the so-called HeLa cells were significant in the medical breakthrough of the polio vaccine.
They have been growing for almost sixty years. They have been on the moon and they have been exposed to nuclear testing. They stay young, unlike normal cells, and are in that sense immortal. Ever since hearing of the cells in her biology class, Skloot has been fascinated by it. She wrote a brilliant, moving story, combining scientific non-fiction with the history of the Lacks family.
Henrietta died in 1951 of cervical cancer and without her knowledge or the knowledge or consent of her family, cancer cells were removed. Skloot describes what the implications were for the family and the dark, ethical question of experimenting with Afro-Americans.
What appealed to me most is the sincerity and integrity with which Skloot has addressed this ethical issue. With her book she has brought attention to the problem, but at the same time she told the story of life in poverty of a black family in America, full of abuse and hopelessness. Well written and well researched a book I keep thinking about. Everyone should read it.