This is a book review of the first non-fiction book I read this month, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Now, you may all be wondering who Henrietta Lacks is.
In brief, she was an African-American woman who had cervical cancer and who died in 1951 from the cancer. Samples of her malignant cells was obtained from her body by the doctors at the hospital where she was receiving treatment for the cancer. After her death as well, more cell samples were taken from her body from the tumours.
These were given to a tissue culturist who had been attempting to create cell cultures for research in his lab. He released that these cells were very fast-growing and also that they didn’t seem to die, whereas every other cell he’d experimented on died briefly after being removed from the body.
These cells were called HeLa and then went on to become the most widely used cells in cancer research, polio research, and a variety of other things, and these cells continue to live to this day.
However, the fact that these cells belonged to a woman named Henrietta Lacks was not known at all till the 1970’s or 1980’s, nor was anything known about her history, life or family.
The author of this book decided to undertake the writing of this book because she heard about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa in a biology class. Her interest was piqued but she was unable to find any further information about Henrietta Lacks in any textbook or library. She felt like Henrietta Lacks deserved recognition and her story deserved to be told, and therefore, began the project.
I studied about Henrietta Lacks in law school in the context of patenting medication invented using her cells, but I was somewhat fuzzy about the details of how her cells came to be in the possession of the doctors, why her family was quite so outraged by it, what her rights even are with relation to her body parts, and whether those rights are alienable.
I chose this book over the pile of other unread non-fiction I own because it has a lot to do with what I discussed about ownership of one’s body and usage of one’s body in medical research or for medical purposes, and such topics in my book review of Never Let Me Go. I felt like it would be a continuation of the same theme and maybe help to answer some of the ethical questions that I have. Maybe. So I gave it a shot.
This book was meticulously researched, especially considering that Skloot had to start from very nearly from scratch. Her hard work really came through in her description of her research process, but it was clear that those bits weren’t there simply to explain her work, but rather to explain how confused and traumatised Henrietta Lacks’s family was by what was happening with her cells.
I really liked how Skloot mixed the more human, for lack of a better word, parts of the story with the legal parts. It didn’t feel like a heavy read at all, but I understood a lot of heavy concepts a lot better by the end of it all. It was apparent that she’d formed a real bond with Lack’s family, and that really touched me.
I also understood, in large measure, the bewilderment felt by common people at the technicalities of the medical industry, which also applies to the legal industry I think. I almost cried when I was reading those parts.
The book answered most of my legal and factual questions, but it did not clear up my ethical dilemmas at all. In fact, I have more questions than ever. I’m very grateful for that because it makes me want to help to resolve the many legal grey areas of medical research and human experimentation.
This book is a good, educational and still enjoyable read that I think everyone should read. The things it speaks about should be general knowledge.
Plus, there wasn’t a slow moment in the book. I loved reading every bit of it. It flows smoothly and engages the reader throughout. Overall, it’s an auspicious start to non-fiction reads month I think. Read it!
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