This is another true story, about a woman who was never given any accolades for her contribution to science, because she never even knew that she made an earth-shattering contribution to the understanding and treatment of cancer. It is the story of the ethics of "informed consent," and on a deeper level it is about who owns our cells and DNA...do we or does medical science, when it is for the "greater good?" This book is also about a family, poverty stricken when the story begins, and poverty stricken as the story concludes. It's about being treated in the "colored ward" of Johns Hopkins hospital, and about the black patients's lack of confidence and trust in institutions such as Johns Hopkins.
In 1951 Henrietta's cancerous cervical cells were taken and used for research without her knowledge. Known as HeLa cells, they reproduced at an amazing rate, and allowed clinics and laboratories all over the world to use them for research. But Henrietta never knew about her amazing cells. Today, though the question of payment for profitable tissues remains unresolved it’s still not necessary to obtain consent to store cells and tissue taken in diagnostic procedures and then use the samples for research. This oversight has far reaching consequences.
The book is written by a woman of great compassion, who like a true detective, is looking for the truth. It takes Skloot, a white woman, a great deal of time to be accepted by the Lacks family. Her book is fascinating, and an important document in understanding medical research as it applies to human illness, and about our rights regarding parts of our own bodies. But it is also a very human story, about a brave woman, about a suffering family, and in part about racial divides. Following Skloot along her path for the truth is a rewarding and amazing ride. I hope you will consider reading this important book.
The book was awarded the National Academies Best Book of the Year Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Best Young Adult Book Award, The Wellcome Trust Book Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding work of fiction or non-fiction on the theme of health and medicine. It also won the Heartland Prize for non-fiction, among others, including a Salon Book Award, and a 100 New York Times Notable Books of the Year. The paperback edition had spent 75 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Henrietta and David Lacks, c. 1945