This is, without a doubt, one of the most compelling books I have ever read. It's not just that it's well-written (which it is, brilliant), but that the subject matter is so unbelievable and staggering and has such implications from our medical past, and for the future of medicine.
Henrietta Lacks was a black woman living in rural Virginia in the 1940s and ‘50s. A wife and mother of five, she died at the age of 31 at Johns Hopkins medical center, in the black ward, of cervical cancer. A few months before she died, her doctor retrieved a tissue sample from her cervix and gave it to one of his assistants—something they did routinely at this teaching and research center—to place the cells into a culture and see if they could grow and replicate. Such cells usually died in a matter of hours, but if they could be kept alive, were increasingly useful in the new field of virology.
Henrietta’s cells lived, and were named HeLa.
From the moment the doctors at Johns Hopkins started using them, and giving them out to other researchers to use, they began to spread exponentially. HeLa cells are now so prevalent and common in medicine that nearly every researcher in the world has touched them, and they’ve gone up in space. They have been bought and sold, replicated and shipped worldwide. They have unfortunately also contaminated other cell lines, causing uncounted millions of dollars in damage to vital research.
And for decades, her family didn't know, and then they didn't understand. Science writer Rebecca Skloot heard snippets of information which got her interested in the HeLa cells, realized the significance of their story, and spent more than 10 years researching and composing this book, interviewing Nobel laureates, pharmaceutical techs and CEOs, lawyers and medical ethicists, and most importantly, the family of Henrietta Lacks.
She’s done a brilliant job weaving Henrietta’s story, those of her children, and the progress of science and the HeLa cells, into a moving, riveting, personal narrative. Her access to, and eventual closeness with Henrietta’s children was a dangerous course for a journalist needing objectivity to tell this story, but she handled it well. I may even forgive her for making me cry. Twice.
Skloot is particularly good about the clarity of her scientific explanations for the layman, and the timeline of important scientific events and discoveries made by the use of HeLa cells. And in a strong Afterword, her even-handed examination of the legal and moral ramifications of human tissue handling, and the desperate need of science to have access to human tissue to serve the needs of us all, is thought-provoking in the extreme. I can’t get it out of my mind, in fact, and will probably be thinking about it and discussing it for the rest of my life.
It’s that important.