It’s just not as much fun reading nonfiction as it is reading novels. And since I read to get-away-from-it-all, it’s not often that I pick up a book about medical topics to read for fun. And yet, this past spring/summer, it seemed everywhere I looked I saw The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The story sounded so compelling and the reviews were so uniformly glowing, that it was impossible for me to ignore the book.
Rebecca Skloot is a science journalist who, for a long time, had been obsessed with the story behind He-La cells, the immortal line of human cervical cancer cells that revolutionalized biological and medical research. Who was "He....La...."?
This book elegantly explores the toll medical research has taken on some of its human subjects. Recounting some of the horror stories in the days prior to bioethics regulations, it highlights how harm can occur through sins of omission that are just as devastating as damage inflicted intentionally or by negligence. Henrietta never gave permission for her cells to be used. It was more than twenty-years before her family learned that her cells were still alive and growing, and that other people were making fortunes from these living offshoots of the cancer that killed her.
Skloot examines the issues from all sides and the book gives a balanced journalistic view of the researchers and the industry’s parts of the story. However, she treats the family with particular compassion and sensitivity. It is through her eyes that we are able to really understand how different family members viewed what had happened to Henrietta, and, by extension, to them. And it is heartbreaking.
From start to finish, this is a gripping story. And an important one. For anyone contemplating a career in the sciences, it’s a must read.