I’m a total science numpty in most respects. I couldn’t wait to dump chemistry and physics and the only thing that has interested me in them since is the patient and fabulous science lessons HH does for the kids. I did keep going with Biology at school, largely because I had no choice, but I left it behind with a breath of relief at the end of GCSE and didn’t look back, which might seem odd for a child with a highly qualified and, in her field, rather well known research scientist for a mother. Both my siblings went on to do science based degrees, but I had utterly no interest. What interested me was people; I lapped up history and was engrossed in the Ethics GCSE I took, which sadly had no A Level equivalent in my school; I couldn’t get enough of how people lives or where or why and what changes them. People do really fascinate me. I spent a lot of my childhood and young adulthood acting or directing plays fairly successfully and to do that, putting yourself into the shoes of other people is a skill worth acquiring.
These two things make it both surprising and not at all surprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It tells the story of the HeLa cells, which were taken from the cervical tumour of Henrietta Lacks, a black women in 1950’s America. The cells, from a form of tumour previously unseen, were immortal; unlike other cell cultures where the cells had a natural shelf life even if they didn’t simply die from lack of the correct culturing procedures, Henrietta’s cells just kept on multiplying and dividing. It was a revolutionary breakthrough in science and they were shortly being shipped all over the world. From the work done with Henrietta’s cells came cancer treatments, HPV understanding, the potential to do IVF and so much more, along with incredible scientific misunderstanding and mistakes. To say I was surprised to find myself enjoying a book that described the history of cell culture is a a huge understatement.
What makes Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, so extra-ordinarily good is not that it just tells that story. It tells the story of Henrietta, who died as a young mum thanks not only to her tumour but also in some ways due to the aggressive treatment she was subjected to. And it tells the very human story of all her children, most particularly her youngest daughter, who all grew up motherless, abused and most tragically, penniless while a multi-million dollar cell manufacturing business grew up around their mothers cells. While the world changed and factories were built to ship out her cells, her children couldn’t afford healthcare and were getting gradually sicker and angrier as knowledge began to filter back to them.
Most particularly of interest to me, not only because of the research I grew up alongside but also from the medical history I and my children have, was the thread that explored the birth of the notion of informed consent. It seems incredible that this is a recent concept. Only last week, 13 year old Fran was given the right to say no to her cleft data being held on a database. To think that is is hardly any time since people were experimented on without knowledge is quite incredible.
This is at once a personal and a global story, wrapped effortlessly into one compelling bundle. I’d say it is an absolute must read, a five star book of outlook changing proportions and truly fascinating alongside being deeply moving.