This is a fantastic book. It reminds me of some of the best non-fiction I’ve read, like this by Laura Hillenbrand. In some ways, it reminded me of one of my favorite non-fiction (and really just favorite of any genre) books of all time, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Both examine the intersection of medicine and culture, although from slightly different perspectives.
Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died from cervical cancer in the 1950s. When she went in for her diagnosis and subsequent treatment, doctors took samples of her tumor without her knowledge. They used those cells to develop an immortal cell line, HeLa, again without her knowledge. HeLa has become one of the most useful and used cell lines in biology and medicine today. The Lacks family did not learn of the HeLa line until over 20 years later and on multiple levels it was devastating news to them.
Skloot does a wonderful job of balancing Henrietta’s story, the story of her descendents and the story of her own involvement in researching this book. She also does a marvelous job of explaining the science in detail (and in making it interesting). Henrietta’s story raises all sorts of interesting questions about medical ethics and privacy. Skloot also looks at how culture and religion shape perceptions about science and medicine.
There is a lot in this book and it’s well worth the read. If you are at all interested in science and medicine or you work in the field, I’d say it’s a must read. (One of the most shocking things to me was that I’d never heard this story before or even heard of HeLa cells. It made me really start to think about the sources used in my own medical education.) But even if you aren’t someone who usually is interested in science, I think you would find a lot here to enjoy.