Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins harvested some of her cancerous cells so that they could perhaps be grown and studied in a culture medium. They not only survived outside of her body, they thrived and eventually seeped into thousands of cultures worldwide, contaminating decades of research. Still, they performed an invaluable service to medicine and were subjected to a vast range of studies, helping to develop a wide array of cures and vaccines. This book covers not only the many medical advances made possible by Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells but also the lives of her descendants, who did not know about their mother's unwitting contribution to science until twenty-something years after her death. Then their emotions ran the gamut from indignation to perplexity to astonishment. Their lack of education with regard to cellular biology led to all sorts of misunderstandings as to whether their mother was in some way still alive or could perhaps be cloned. Skloot interweaves the family story with the science story, and I would expect that most readers would have a clear preference for one over the other. Being the geek that I am, I preferred the science story, with all its misconceptions about the effects of lead and radium, as well as its victories with polio and hepatitis B. Others will prefer the more personal story, with its own set of misconceptions and victories, including the author's persistence in finally gaining the trust of Henrietta's children. In some ways they are lost souls, battling poverty, racism, poor healthcare, and, worst of all, the loss of their mother at too young an age.

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