Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 02:45PM
"Fascinating Science - Tragic Biography"
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS
by Rebecca Skloot
(Broadway Paperbacks/Random House, 2010)
[Trade Paperback, 381 pages, $16.00 U.S. - buy for less on Amazon.com]
Midtown Atlanta Book Group Rating: ★★★★☆
August 2012 Selection
"Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same."
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was one of our book group's best books and discussions in six years of reading together, which says a lot, because we've read 72 really great books! [Take a look: Books We Have Read. See?!]
Although some readers are hesitant to jump in because of the science -- HeLa cells, really?! -- scientists and non-scientists alike enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The success of the book (and the forthcoming movie from Oprah Winfrey) is due in large part to the author's deftly balanced approach to a remarkable story, offering a unique and fascinating blend of technical writing in layman's terms and tragic human interest with the family history. Rebecca Skloot manages to fulfill the expectations of both groups, leading to great discussion and debate about informed consent and the evolution of ethics and procedure in medical science and research; scientific advances v. privacy and rights of the individual, family and heirs; and contribution v. compensation.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman with five children, living in Baltimore in the 1940s. In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed cancer cells from Henrietta's cervix, without her knowledge or consent, which was not at all unusual at the time. Henrietta died from the cancer several months later, but those cancer cells didn't die. Henrietta's unwitting contribution to science was to provide the first successful surviving human cell line that, when divided and multiplied, billions of times over, became the basis for many advances in medical science, based on research, study, trials and use of the so-designated HeLa cells.
The tragedy at the heart of this story is that for twenty years, Henrietta's husband and children did not know about her surviving cells, or the multibillion-dollar they facilitated. The family mourned the loss of wife and mother. One of the daughters had been institutionalized in a mental hospital, where she died at age 15. The other children were farmed out to relatives, abused and neglected. They grew to adulthood in abject poverty. Even after they learned about their mother's contribution to science, the family never had access to basic care, education or health insurance, much less the medical advances or medications their mother's cells helped create.
Interest in HeLa, and the tragic story behind the cells, led young writer Rebecca Skloot to begin researching Henrietta's biography. Although the family was initially resistant and suspicious of her interest, Skloot connected with Henrietta's only surviving daughter, Deborah, in 2000. Together, they went through the history, interviewed doctors, researchers and family members, and traveled into the past to piece together the science of HeLa and the biography of Henrietta Lacks. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published, to instant critical acclaim, in 2010.
The Midtown Atlanta Book Group at Barnes & Noble/Georgia Tech LOVED The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with a group rating of 4 out of 5 Stars.
ATLANTA'S PONCE DE LEON AVENUE: A HISTORY
by Sharon Foster Jones
[Our Local Author Event at Barnes & Noble/Georgia Tech in September!]