My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 Stars
Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.
This book is a nonfiction book and I rarely if ever pick up nonfiction books. I would have read this book for a health sciences class that I almost took in high school, but I didn’t end up taking the class and therefore, never read it. However, I heard a lot of people raving about it and knew that I had to pick it up at some point. I finally did and I’m so happy to report that it was such a good book! This story was fascinating and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t want to put it down. I was in a reading slump before I read this and I cannot believe that this book got me out of that slump (seriously, who would think that a nonfiction read would get me out of a reading slump??). I feel like I learned so much from this book in regards to medical ethics, cell culture in labs, and the debate over informed consent when it comes to using a person’s tissue samples for medical research. I hope to someday go into a medically related career (not sure what yet) and I think this book will really benefit me as I go on to college to study science. In fact, I feel like this book is a must read for anyone who is thinking about going into the medical field. It made me want to read more books that deal with medical topics and to learn more about current scientific issues.
The Importance of HeLa Cells
I had absolutely no idea the immense role that HeLa cells have played and have yet to play in scientific research. Some of these things include developing the first polio vaccine, helping scientists discover the 46 chromosomes in humans, helping determine that HPV causes cancer, helping to study the effects of radiation, helping develop treatments for Parkinson’s Disease/ influenza/ leukemia/ hemophilia, helping in research on what causes aging, and many other things. HeLa cells are used around the world and yet they were taken from one woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was a black woman in America. She is one of the most important people in medical history and she never knew that her cells were taken from her for research.
The Issues of Informed Consent and Compensation
I think this book showed us very well how much trouble the Lacks family went through due to Henrietta’s cells being used so widely in research. They were never compensated for their mother’s contribution to science nor were they told much of anything that was going on at all. The family went through a lot of distress from not being told much about the uses of Henrietta’s cells and it really made me feel bad for them. I learned a lot about how important informed consent is in today’s society because in the 50’s it wasn’t a thing and it caused a lot of problems. I also learned how complicated the topic of compensation is in the world of tissue/cell research. On one hand, the book shows us how hard it was on the Lacks family to not have benefitted from their mother’s cells, but on the other hand, it shows us how hard it would be to compensate every person for their contribution to tissue/cell research and still make progressive advances toward scientific discoveries. This story made me think a lot about how steps toward compensation for the use of a person’s cells in research should be handled. If you want to be in the know about this very important debate in science, then read this book.
Structure of the Story
This story is structured around the journey that the author, Rebecca Skloot, takes in gathering all of her knowledge on the subject. Some of the chapters are just the story of Henrietta’s life, while others follow Rebecca’s interviews with members of the Lacks family and other important people related to HeLa cells. I personally liked the way that this was set up because it made me feel as though I was going on the research journey with her and discovering things as she did. I also really appreciated the fact that she kept the dialogue of the characters exactly how they would speak in real life. This made it feel very authentic.
“She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”
“When he asked if she was okay, her eyes welled with tears and she said, “Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.”
“Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.”