What impressed me after watching the BBC documentary, was the description of her painful death. Not her name, not her history, not her importance stuck, but the description of her suffering. Years later, I visited a bookshop for a totally different book but the first cover I noticed was her picture against an orange background. I picked the paperback up and read her name and then the blurb and remembered. Three days later, I had a hardback version and read it in a weekend.
Some books should be compulsory reading at secondary schools and this is one of them. It not only tracks the history of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and their shabby treatment. It also tells about medical and scientific revolutions based on Henrietta’s cells. It poses serious questions about ethics. It is a heart-breaking story which should leave every reader indignant, upset, but also grateful – and make him or her think.
Author Rebecca Skloot covers this story from several angles. She tells the history of Henrietta and her family. She describes the history of medical research to find cures for cancer, polio, and other diseases. She covers early cancer treatment and the revolution Henrietta’s cells caused. Yet Rebecca Skloot explains everything from how cells work, to why Henrietta Lacks’ are so special and other technicalities in an easy to understand manner. Moreover, the stories read like detective stories, which make it difficult to put the book down.
The book also contains quite a few horror stories. It is not just about how Henrietta was treated and died, but also about how large groups of Americans were used by doctors and scientists for research – without any consent or people even being aware of this. One of these stories, traces what probably happened to Henrietta’s eldest daughter. The Nazi experiments were not an incident in humanity’s medical science history. Similar experiments are undoubtedly still carried out in different parts of the world. Rebecca Skloot mentions operations on African American women in the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties? Similar operations are still carried out on Indian women in Southern America, on Tibetan women in occupied Tibet, and undoubtedly in many other areas of our so-called civilized world.
What becomes very clear through this book is, that medical science and the multimillion-dollar medicine industry as well as humanity, owe Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells a debt. Though this debt is acknowledge by a minority of doctors and scientists, the rest of them as well as most of us either prefer to forget, or are totally unaware of it. This book tries to put things right. What prevents you from reading this New York Times bestseller?
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot, Crown Publishers, 2010 – hard cover 370 pp