The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

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Many years (and several careers) ago, when I was working in the lab, I often used HeLa cells. They were a standard culture of human cells, used for a variety of purposes. I never gave much thought to from where (which is to say “from whom”) they came. We had a variety of cell lines to choose from, and HeLa were just the standard, go-to choice.

Fortunately, people like Rebecca Skloot are a good deal more curious than I, and she was inspired not only to research the history of these cells (and through that, the history of cell culturing as a science) but also to research the history of the woman from whom all those countless cells have come.

In many ways, tracking down Henrietta Lacks (the original donor) and explaining the story of cell culturing was the easiest part of the story. It is a standard detective tale of tracking down false leads and looking for evidence in unlikely places. And for Skloot, an experienced medical writer for the New York Times Magazine and NPR, this is just another day at the office. But the book goes beyond the scope of a standard history of science/medicine when Skloot decides to track down the descendents of Henrietta Lacks and tell their stories. It becomes an intensely moving, disturbing story of race and class in contemporary America.

While the history of science in the book is first-rate, this really is much, much more. In her attempts to bring Henrietta Lacks back to life (though, eerily, parts of her are still alive: in laboratories around the world), Skloot has to go way out of her comfort zone, establishing trust with a family that has no reason to trust her (or the medical establishment) and bringing them in contact with the researchers who have taken advantage of their ancestor’s unknowing (and unwilling) contribution.

In doing this, Skloot raises a number of challenging ethical questions over the always-vexing issue of “consent”. If we have a legal right to control our own bodies, where does that right end? At death? What if our cells go on dividing? They are still alive, so what rights do we have over what happens to them? And what of relatives? Can/should a relative be able to prevent taking tissue if it will save a life? A dozen lives? A hundred lives? For those who believe in a soul, what does it mean to have a bit of a loved one being experimented on in a lab?

For the working scientist, such questions seldom arise. The cell lines are tools: no more sentient or deserving of ethical questioning than the pipettes and reagents we use every day. But Skloot makes abundantly clear that even if these questions do not arise for most scientists, they can be a major concern for non-scientists.

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