The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It is easy to forget how far we all have come in medical science to get where we are today, and some of the ugly decisions made in the 1950s. Truly ugly decisions, nearly mad-science level decisions, have all been forgotten and brushed under the rug.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” isn’t just about the HeLa cancer cell line, although the book is about that. Henrietta Lacks was infected with a line of cancer that simply would not and will not, to this day, die; the line simply grows and grows, ignoring the Hayflick Limit and carrying on. It’s not just about the horrible things done during the times of segregation when people of one color were still seen as “less human” as those of another, or the impact to the family, or that the HeLa cell line forced science to examine its own sets of rules and ethics. It’s more about history — the history of this remarkable find of this cancerous weed, what it meant for science, and what it meant for the Lacks family.

As a book, this one is a pretty brisk read. The chapters are short and to the point. The narrative never lingers or dwells. It would be trivial to take a few of the points in the book and spend hundreds of pages on them but the book never does. It does have several “squick” moments here and there — some of the things that happened to Henrietta herself and to her family are amazingly awful. But the book also demonstrates that without the HeLa line, many things done in medical science today, while doable, would be far more difficult. This feels like a six of one, half a dozen of another situation: the family was shafted but humanity profits. Do we come out ahead?

This is one of those books I can recommend. I know it is already being made into a movie. It’s on all these reading group lists. Everyone and their cousin is reading it. It’s a good read for a book about science if not a bit depressing from its narrative viewpoint.

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