Posted on Tue 14 December 2010

Henrietta Lacks

I’ve just finished Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, without doubt the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman, diagnosed with cancer in the 1950s. Without her knowledge her cancer cells were sampled and became the first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells (as they are known) were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses, and HIV; helped lead to important advances such as in-vitro fertilisation, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta died of her cancer and was buried in an unmarked grave while her family knew nothing of the contribution her cells made to medicine and science.

Skloot tells the parallel stories of the cells and the science that developed from them, plus the story of Henrietta’s family from that point on. The book also covers the changes in medical ethics from the 1950s through to the notion of informed consent that exists today.

This is not a comfortable read, covering other topics such as the the horrors of Pneumoencephalography inflicted on the ‘insane’ between the 1950s and 1970s. The topics are covered with great compassion and this is a story that deserves to be widely read and not just by those with an interest in science, medicine, history or ethics.

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