I loathed science since grade school, particularly biology. I don’t get how learning the cell’s structure and its division stages going to help me in getting a job or living my life. Certainly, the subject is not an entertainment with its countless terms, which were probably derived from Greek words. After reading the book I still didn’t like studying science, probably I never will. But at least, for a moment, I enjoyed the topic.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is a biography of Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind the HeLa (hee-lah) cell line which helped produce in studying tissue culture and develop various medicines and medical advances: polio vaccine, chemotherapy and cloning – to name a few; and the struggle of Lackses family at the death of their mother, Henrietta, both from personal, ethical and political issues. The story does not only tell the grieving loss but also highlights the racism and medical advances in the past century, which makes it a good choice for a book club discussion.
Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and an African-American, died at the age of 31 out of urinal dysfunction cause by cervical cancer. Her cells were taken without her consent but before her death, George Gey, a scientist, had already been interested to her cells – the first one to live immortally outside the human body. Worst of all, the family had been deprived of such knowledge and some companies were making money out of it.
Rebecca Skloot, an award-winning young science writer and a meticulous researcher, worked the book for about 10 years together with the Lackses Family. She tells the story, almost ineffable due to the scientific facts and evocative experiences, lucidly. With its beautiful narrative prose, the book can be mistaken as fiction.
I can’t deny that there are some jargons I knew but barely understood. The book explains cell division, tissue culture, how a normal cell becomes a cancer cell and the like. However, a layman can benefit as much as a scientist. The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is not a handbook. It doesn’t have instructions to dictate but a story to tell.
The book raises more awareness in research and medical ethics. Nowadays, the hospital must ask for a consent from the patient for current and future usage of his/her cells. Studying a person’s DNA is violation of his/her privacy. At first, I find it absurd but in a scientific sense, it does make sense. DNA reveals the person’s identity more than his/her resume can tell.
Cell-line industry is now a multi-million dollar industry, this result to a debate from the donor/patient with the hospital/medical institute: how profit is shared, let alone if profit will be shared. The wonder is Ms. Skloot have perfectly withheld her favors. She revealed the claims on both sides without sounding judgmental. The reader’s take is solely based in her interpretation, that is neither bad or good. Plus, you get to read the hottest scientific debates in the past century.
At the end of the book, you can see notes from the author’s extensive research designated for every chapter, which makes the book a good source for resources.
If my grade-school, high-school and college’s science books was written like The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks – mixed with “science and basic human interest”, I would have understood the reason why I am studying the subject and perhaps get intimate with it. My conclusion is expressed on E.O. Wilson’s words: “We need more writers like Rebecca Skloot”.
PS: Thanks to all the people who practiced science who have spent sleepless nights just to make our life better.