September 19, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve written about what I’ve been reading. Partially it’s due to the fact I’m reading The Song of Ice and Fire series – or trying. I’m only part way through the second book. But I haven’t digested it enough to decide what I think yet. But I did buy and read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’d been seeing it on a whole bunch of best seller lists and I found it pretty fascinating.

The book is about how a poor black woman’s cells, taken without permission or knowledge, have made a huge contribution to science and medicine. But it’s not just about what was done with her cells – including helping to develop the polio vaccine and gene mapping. The author – Rebecca Skloot – explores the woman’s family, her background and her story. So the book parallels what’s happening with the cells with what’s happening with the family.

I found two things most interesting. First, the inevitable issue of human subjects in medical research. As Henrietta’s cells were taken, grown and used without her knowledge, Skloot explores several topics such as informed consent, ownership of pieces of your body given more medical research, as well as sketchy experiments – like the Tuskegee syphilis study. The second thing I found interesting was how mistrustful Henrietta’s family/friends were of Johns Hopkins, and really, the medical field in general. They’re poor, mostly uneducated, and black. They didn’t understand Henrietta’s cancer, why they gave blood samples years later,  a lot of the research the cells were use in, or how to find more information. It’s a point of view that’s so different it’s hard for me to imagine.

The book was definitely worth a read.



  1. I’m about half way through the second book right now, and I’m enjoying it so far. Brett’s read them all at least twice, and assured me that it keeps getting better. I do think he gets a little long winded for my tastes, but it’s still managed to keep me entertained.

    • Yeah, I’m pretty torn right now. I was not a fan after the first book. The second book seemed a little better at first, but now I find myself ignoring it for other reading. So we’ll see how it turns out. Also, there are definitely a few things that really bother me.

  2. I heard the story of Rebecca Skloot writing the HeLa cell book on NPR and thought it was a fascinating story. Finally I understood why the cells were called HeLa cells.

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