This would make a wonderful title for a novel, but this book is a work of non-fiction. It reads as easily as a novel, though, and is so fascinating that it kept me reading late into the night so that I have been waking up grumpy and tired in the mornings. Luckily it has been holidays, although my puppy doesn’t seem to care about holidays.
Briefly, the story is about cancerous cells that were taken from a woman’s cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s. This woman was Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from the Southern tobacco farms, and the cells were taken without her knowledge. She died soon after they were taken and no-one in her family was told about them. They proved to be hardy cells that thrived in laboratory surroundings and multiplied rapidly. The medical scientist who took them called them the HeLa cells. From this ‘immortal’ tissue, cells were used for a myriad of scientific advancements, the most notable being the polio vaccine. Billions have been bought and sold over the decades and they are still available today.
What the author, Rebecca Skloot, does – and she does it so skilfully – is go behind the story of the cells to find out who Henrietta Lacks was and what happened to her family. Through her investigations, she meets Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and much of Henrietta’s story is divulged through Rebecca’s time with Deborah and her siblings. The story exposes an incredible tale of racism, medical ethics, deception, poverty and cruelties that humans can inflict upon each other.
What made this book work for me is that, on one level, Rebecca Skloot gives an easily accessible explanation of cellular medicine and science, while on the other she tells a tale of human suffering and greed with a degree of lightness, despite the heavy subject. She writes it so well that I didn’t want to put it down and her portrayal of the Lacks family is so well done that I felt truly appalled by the levels of deception by the scientists of the time, as well as the hurtful racism. (Deborah seems truly unhinged by the incident, especially when she discovers she had a sister who died in a mental institution when she was only 15).
It’s a strange subject for a bestseller, but it does not surprise me that it has done so well and I would urge you to read it if you want an incredibly well written, well researched book that keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next.
And don’t blame me if you wake up grumpy.