Thursday, September 8, 2011

Before The Blog: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Crown Publishing Group Hardcover
ISBN 9781400052172
369 pages
Release Date: February 2, 2010
Available for purchase 
Amazon               Barnes and Noble

I've been reading a lot about this book lately. I read it shortly after it was released, long before I was a book blogger. So I've decided it is time to blog about the book!
Why did you choose this book? I remembered learning about HeLa cells way back in freshman Biology at UIUC, so this book caught my eye.
When did you read this book? May 2010
Who should read this book? biology students, people interested in medical ethics, history lovers
Here is a synopsis of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' from Goodreads, where it rates 4.12 stars.

Who, you might ask, is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) and why is she the subject of a book? On the surface, this short-lived African American Virginian seems an unlikely candidate for immortality. The most remarkable thing about her, some might argue, is that she had ten children during her thirty-one years on earth. Actually, we all owe Ms. Lacks a great debt and some of us owe her our lives. As Rebecca Skloot tells us in this riveting human story, Henrietta was the involuntary donor of cells from her cancerous tumors that have been cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. These so-called HeLa cells have not only generated billions of dollars for the medical industry; they have helped uncover secrets of cancers, viruses, fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. A vivid, exciting story; a 2010 Discover Great New Books finalist; a surprise bestseller in hardcover. Now in paperback and NOOKbook.

My Review

This is an interesting book.. I was intrigued because I was one of the biology students who learned about HeLa cells in college. The personal story of Henrietta was interesting to read, as was the history of the research leading up to and after the discovery of the cells. However, I read the first 2 sections feeling that the author was trying to lead me to a the side she wanted me to see. I felt she had an agenda, but was unwilling to commit to that agenda. She obviously felt Henrietta's family had been exploited, but never really said why she felt this way. Did she feel they were taken advantage of because they were poor? because they were black? because they were uneducated? She also brought up a daughter who had been institutionalized. This daughter was also mistreated, but that could be a whole separate issue and didn't really add anything to the 'exploitation' of Henrietta. 

Another issue I had is that the author became a part of the story, losing her objectivity. By the 3rd section of the book, this became read more like  a memoir. And given the author's concern over the exploitation of the Lacks family, I often wondered if this book wasn't just a continuation of that exploitation. Were there profits made on the book? If so, who profited? Were all profits given to the family? 

There are a lot of good issues raised; informed consent, and should ANYONE's cells be used for medical research without their consent. That is even more a concern today than it was in Henrietta's times. Today privacy concerns can be an issue with DNA analysis. But those concerns for the family would not go away if Henrietta HAD given consent. This leads to another question.....does anyone have a right to 'donate' without getting family consent, and if so, how far do you go in getting consent? How many generations? And once the donation is made, if there is money involved, who shoud share in the profits? This is a thought-provoking book which should make for some good discussions. Perfect for a book club selection

My Rating
I'm rating this one 3/1/2 star; 4 stars for part 1 and part 2, but only 3 stars for part 3!

Before the Blog is a meme hosted by YA Litwit. The idea here is that we have all been reading much longer than we have been blogging and have many books in our reading past that are worthy of blogging about. This is a way to 'rediscover' these gems by answering a few basic questions. For details check out Karis' YA Litwit blog.

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