Monday, January 3, 2011

Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has gotten a lot of buzz in the last year. I first saw the story featured on CBS Sunday Morning, and it's been chosen for some "best books of the year" lists. Despite all that, it's one of those books that I probably wouldn't have read if it hadn't been chosen by my book club. It tells the interesting story of the woman who unknowingly provided the first cells that were successfully grown in a lab culture. They became known as HeLa cells, which played, and continue to play, a key role in scientific and medical research.

This book weaves in one part biography of Henrietta and her descendants, one part information about the science behind the use of the cells, and one part the tale of how the author got the family to let her tell Henrietta's story. Living in poverty, Henrietta's descendants were largely misinformed about the cells and distrusted anything and anyone that had to do with them. The author had to slowly bring them around to cooperating with her. Some of the interactions between the author and Henrietta's family were pretty dramatic and, for me, were the most engrossing parts of the book. It did leave me wondering if the family's goal of telling Henrietta's story was truly achieved. I feel like I came away from this book with a better picture of Henrietta's descendants then of Henrietta herself.

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