Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

When "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was released, the author Rebecca Skloot was interviewed on every NPR program except Car Talk. The book sounded fairly interesting, and I put it on my mental list of books to look for at the library. The next week, I noticed that the book was on the bestseller list. This surprised me, because I didn't think even NPR had that many listeners interested in cell biology. THEN I saw the book at Costco, nestled in between the Jodi Picault weepers and the cookbooks. If a book about cell biology was a best seller AND was sold at the store where I buy 36 rolls of toilet paper, it had to be a heck of a book.

It is a heck of a book. It's a book about Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. It's about her cells, which have been grown in laboratories all over the world and used in scientific research for decades. It's about the ethics and legality of using human cells, sometimes obtained without knowledge or consent. It's about the contrast between poor, uneducated patients and the doctors and scientists who work with them. It's about Henrietta's children, and how their mother's early death affected them, and how they have dealt with her cellular immortality. And it's about how Ms. Skloot became fascinated with this subject and spent years getting to know the Lacks family so she could write the full story.

I really enjoyed this book. Despite the serious subject matter, it was an entertaining book to read by the pool in Florida. Part of the book profits will go to a scholarship fund for the Lacks family, so I'm even glad that I tossed a copy in my Costco cart instead of getting it from the library. A year or two from now, when I've finally used the last of those 36 rolls of TP, I'll still remember this book.