Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksSkloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

My Summary and Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was written powerfully. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a young mother, died from a vicious form of cervical cancer. Prior to her death, a doctor removed some cancer cells without her permission, and had the cells grown in a lab culture. Over several years, her cells (named HeLa cells) were used in countless experiments, benefitting the field of medicine and medical industries. For many years, her family never knew of her cells' importance, and faced many struggles, including poverty.

Rebecca Skloot covers the HeLa cells' story quite clearly. Readers who aren't medical specialists can understand her descriptions. More importantly, Skloot gives a human face to the development of the field of field of bioethics in the 20th century.

Who has the final say over the medical testing of humans and human tissues: patients or doctors? And should patients know all the risks regarding the tests in which they are participating?

One subject addressed in this book is particularly horrifying: researchers in the 1950s did not seek patient consent or disclose all pertinent information before involving patients in medical tests/trials. New information has been published that is relevant to the medical history provided in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In 2009, information was discovered about a 1940s study in which 696 Guatemalan prison inmates were intentionally exposed to syphilis by American researchers.

Amidst this bleak historical period, Skloot draws an overwhelming portrait of the struggle of a human family to survive and to understand the seemingly impossible information about the use of their mother's tissues to further scientific knowledge.

Further Information

Rebecca Skloot interview with Steve Paikin on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The Agenda". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnUp0xQlfK8&feature=fvst

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. U.S. sorry for Guatemala syphilis experiment. Updated October 1, 2010. http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2010/10/01/syphilis-guatemala.html

1 comment:

  1. I admire the way that Skloot puts herself, and her journey, into the narrative. Her relationship with Henrietta's troubled but gentle-spirited daughter was, for me, one of the most moving parts of the narrative. At the end of the book, you find that Skloot has established a scholarship fund for Henrietta Lacks' grandchildren, who remain impoverished despite the billions of dollars that have been made from their grandmother's cells. I definitely intend to visit the website and make a contribution, and I'm sure many other readers will do the same after reading this book.