This non-fiction story is about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cervical cancer in the early 1950s.
While Henrietta was undergoing treatment for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. George Gey (a researcher) obtained some of her cells – without her knowledge or consent. Those cells were the first human cells to remain “alive” outside of the human body. Sadly, Henrietta died – but miraculously, her cells live on even today.
And the study of those cells has led to amazing advancements in medicine, including the polio vaccine, various cancer treatments, and so much more.
Normally, I read a book with my eyes wide open – but this book I read with my mouth wide open. I simply could not believe the liberties that doctors were allowed (and by the by, still are allowed) to take with human tissues. No consent necessary. Even if they will profit from it.
And it’s not just taking samples – it’s testing. While doctors and researchers were dissecting and analyzing cells outside of Henrietta’s body, other doctors were conducting research – including injecting cancer cells into their patients – without asking permission or forgiveness.
Rebecca Skloot does a lovely job of introducing us to the Lacks family and sharing their journey with us.
It was by complete accident that the Lacks children even learned that Henrietta’s cells were taken from her and being used all over the world. The cells were named HeLa cells (the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names). And they have not profited in any way from their discovery or continued sale – even though they struggle to pay their own medical bills.
This book sounded a little intimidating to me because of the science/research tilt – but Rebecca explains everything so easily that even I (a mere English major) can understand it.
The Lacks family saga saddened me tremendously. In a land where these types of things just aren’t supposed to happen, they simply do happen.
The bottom line for me is – please use my discarded tissue for research if it will help other people, but you really should ask me first if it’s okay. And if you are going to make millions on my tissue, please share at least some of those profits. Yes, thank you.
This is an amazing story and I think you will be very glad you read it!
You can purchase it on Amazon here.
And NPR did a story here.