As someone who struggled with science classes at school, I rarely read books about science, but was recently fascinated by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks, who I had never even heard of, seems to have been one of the world’s most influential women.
She died young from cervical cancer, but cells taken from her tumours had extraordinary abilities to reproduce themselves. These cells have been used in scientific research and laboratories all over the world, helping in the search for cures and better understanding of disease. They were vital in developing the polio vaccine, in gene mapping, in vitro fertilisation, in cloning and in hundreds of medical projects.
Henrietta was a poor black American woman who worked as a tobacco farmer. She died without even knowing that her cells had been taken to a laboratory. For a long time, her family did not know either. The cells were known as HeLa, and Henrietta’s name disappeared from the record for more than a decade. This book gives her her rightful due, tells the amazing story of the cells (which have even gone into space) and raises the complex issues of human tissue use by science and the legal rights of the people whose cells and body parts are being used. How much do we control the stuff we are made of? The story is one of ethics, race, medicine and science. The author interviewed Henrietta’s children (who gained no financial benefit from the universal use of their mother’s cells), doctors and researchers, and bio-ethical law experts.
The book came out in 2010 and the following year won the National Academies Communication Award for a book that helped public understanding of science. It won several other awards as well, so I am obviously not alone in finding it fascinating. Oprah Winfrey stars in a 2017 biopic version of the story, you can see the trailer here. It looks like it is a fabulous movie.
Do you have an opinion of Henrietta’s story? Or maybe you can convince me to read other books about science? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, narrated by Cassandra Campbell
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 2017 HBO TV Drama directed by George C. Wolfe. High resolution from YouTube Movies.
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