A poignant, devastating and incredibly important read (4.5 stars)
Source- borrowed copy
Published January 2011 by Pan
Paperback edition- 431 pages
This meticulously researched biography had me in its thrall from the outset. I whizzed through this in 2 days, a much speedier endeavour than other books along similar lines I have experienced in the past- it was just that good.
In a journey that takes the reader from the ‘coloured’ wards of John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s, to a small southern tobacco plantation, we meet Henrietta Lacks, or HeLa as she is known to present-day scientists, dying from cervical cancer. During treatment, Henrietta’s cells were taken and decades later, still survive in laboratories across the world. The HeLa cells have been used for everything from cloning to gene-mapping and developing the polio vaccine, yet Henrietta’s family never knew her mother’s cells had been taken without permission and were used in the way they had been. This book is an exploration of science, ethics and faith and is a remarkable account of how in death, one women has done so much for medicine.
Journalist Rebecca Skloot had been fascinated by Henrietta’s story for years, prior to even deciding to write this book about the Lacks family and her obsession is obvious from the very start of this biography. The care, dedication and amount of research that has gone into this book remains second to none and she does her best to bring not only Henrietta Lacks to life, but to ensure that her story, as well as that of her descendants, is justly told. Whilst reading this I never for one second lost sight of the fact that Henrietta was a very real person. Whilst her life may have been cut tragically short, this wasn’t just a focus on what her cells subsequently did for medical science but was also a balanced account of the impact that her death had on those loved ones left behind; a husband robbed of a wife and her children robbed of a mother. It is crucially important not to forget the human side of this story and Skloot never ever does. This book for her has been a real labour of love.
The writing style in this book is vibrant and engaging; Skloot also manages to capture the different voices of the people she writes about very distinctly which adds a very readable dimension to the narrative. I was a bit concerned that the subject matter itself would be too difficult for me to understand (I am by no means scientifically minded), yet it is explained concisely and in an articulate manner without reading like a textbook. Scientific explanation is interspersed with information about Henrietta, her ancestors and her children and as well as being technical, it also imparted a lot of cultural and historical detail too, which I found really fascinating. As an aside, I could have probably done without some of the information she writes about herself in the text, though this is only a small criticism. She does veer away slightly from the Lacks family, reiterating the fact that she is a poor student financing her research on her own terms, belabouring the point on quite a few occaisions.
There were some facets of this book that I found truly disturbing- the medical trials on poor black and disabled people were covered in some detail, which was pretty gruesome, not to mention overwhelming. I had to question just how far some researchers would take things, merely in the name of ‘science.’ Whilst there is absolutely no denying that the HeLa cells have advanced medicine in unimaginable ways, the journey to get there is something of a grey one.
The sheer agony that Henrietta Lacks must have experienced before and during her cancer diagnosis really doesn’t bear thinking about. Even though her cells have done so much for science in the years since her harrowing death, I am still pondering the ethical side as to the decisions that were made at the time- this book really made me think and in that respect was worth reading for that reason alone. This wasn’t just a story about a woman with cancer however; it was a story about family, faith, racial tensions and basic human rights and whether doing the wrong thing in the short term can ultimately lead to something more positive in the longer term.
I am still trying to make up my mind how this book ultimately made me feel but I do know that it was a book I would recommend unequivocally and is a seamless weaving of science, history and cold, hard facts.