It’s been several weeks since I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I realized I never blogged about it! A few years ago, I never would have picked up a book like this, but after hearing some great reviews from friends and news sources alike, and being a bit more interested in reading non-fiction these days, I decided to give it a shot.
Henrietta Lacks was an African American mother of four living in Baltimore when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1950; she died at the young age of 30. While she was ill and being treated at Johns Hopkins, tissue was taken from her without her knowledge or consent, and so began the immortality of her cells, nicknamed HeLa. While other cells would die in time, HeLa cells thrived and multiplied, opening up a whole new world for scientists and researchers who were able to use the cells to cure polio, among countless other cures and vaccines. The cells also made way for a billion dollar industry in cell reproduction.
While the book recounts the history of how Henrietta’s cells became the most famous cell line in the history of science, it also follows the story of her children, who mostly lived in poverty and never saw a penny for their mother’s contribution to science.
Science was never a favorite subject of mine, so I had never heard of HeLa or even really fathomed where scientists began (and begin) to find cures and vaccines for diseases. While a few of the super-sciencey sections had me feeling a tad bored/lost, overall I really enjoyed learning about HeLa and Henrietta herself. It’s pretty amazing to think just how far science and civil rights have come in the last 60 years, but there are still a lot of questions and concerns when it comes to tissue ownership and patient rights. Henrietta started the dialogue that continues to evolve today.
I just started reading something quite a bit lighter — Tina Fey’s new autobiography, Bossypants, which is, so far, positively hilarious. I’ll be sure to let you all know how it is when I finish reading!