Monday, July 16, 2012

book review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

I’d heard a lot of positive things about this book, but for some reason it was stuck in my head that this book is about in vitro fertilization… which it is not.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows the life and early death of a woman named Henrietta Lacks, her unknowing contribution of some amazingly unique cells, and then the absolute explosion of scientific progress that stems from the use of these cells.  But the book is not just a rundown on scientific progress over the last 50 years.  The author immerses herself in the lives of Henrietta and her family, and does a wonderful job of revealing the many issues surrounding medical technologies, and the responsibilities or lack of towards the humans who are a source of the starting tissues.   She does not press the issues, rather she presents them and invites the reader’s thoughts.   Skloot's fair description helps the reader appreciate both sides of the debates;  her portrayal of the many struggles faced by Henrietta and her family clearly shows her empathy for their situations, and passes those feelings to the reader. At the same time, the author's excitement and wonder over discoveries such as the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and the mapping of the human genome (all of which were made possible with Henrietta’s cells) helps the reader understand the truly pivotal role Henrietta’s cells have in modern science.   Skloot weaves the huge amount of medical breakthroughs linked to Henrietta’s cells throughout the text; which makes the enormous amount of research that went into this book quite readable.  This book is a fascinating look at the evolution of science in the last 50 years, and the parallel evolution of medical ethics.  It is also a reminder of the human facet of medical progress, and the fact that science cannot ignore people for the sake of advancement.  But at it's heart, it is a story about a woman and her family that finally is being told.  

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