Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of one woman who lived only thirty-one years and yet was also made immortal.  Henrietta Lacks had a very rare form of cervical cancer in a time when very little was known about cancer or even the cells themselves.  A sample of her cancer cells were taken and became the first successfully kept alive indefinitely.  These cells (known forever after as HeLa cells) were then used in experiment after experiment until they became essential laboratory equipment.

HeLa cells made possible the testing necessary to cure polio.  HeLa cells have been used to research cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and biological weapons and gene mapping.  HeLa cells were present on some of the earliest space flights.  It is estimated that scientists have grown twenty tons of her cells. 

While the scientific side of this story is fascinating, also of interest is the other side, the personal side of the story.  Who was Henrietta Lacks?  Did she have a family?  How did her illness effect her?  Henrietta was a black woman dying of cancer in the early 1950s.  What role did race play in her situation?  These questions and many others are also answered. 

This book comprises ten years worth of research by Ms. Skloot and so is a bit slow in some areas.  Yet, when the book ended I felt it had ended a bit too abruptly.  I enjoyed this book and learned so much, but I can't label it a page turner.  One critic said "I couldn't put it down" but for me it took a bit longer to read.  It did make me wonder if there is any of me out there somewhere being used in tests for hair dye or lawn chemicals. 

And now you're wondering about you, too, aren't you?

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