Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Author Rebecca Skloot, daughter of acclaimed Portland writer Floyd Skloot, takes us on a journey back into the 1950s, when an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks contracted aggressive, advanced cervical cancer. Her cells, taken without her permission,
became the first immortal human cells grown in culture. They are still alive today and have multiplied billions of times. All of her cells multiplied today would weigh more than 50 million metric tons. Her cells were instrumental in critical research for polio, cancer, and viruses and contributed to major medical advances.

But before Rebecca Skloot published her book, Henrietta Lacks was virtually unknown...even by all of the scientists, doctors, and researchers whose work benefited from her contributions to the field.

Skloot tells the story of how Lacks was treated in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. She excavates her family history and gradually develops trusting relationships with Lacks' children and other family members, many of whom are too poor to afford steady health insurance.

This is the story of Skloot's journey into this story, Henrietta's history, her family, and medical research and ethics over the decades. It's history, race relations, science, and personal journey rolled into one book. What's particularly amazing about this book is not only its insight into this fascinating story--and how a poor black woman was taken advantage of--but the fact that it was written by a young white woman who grew up in Portland, Oregon, a long way from Baltimore or Clover, Virginia. It took her a long time to get the Lacks family to trust her, but she did it. Now she has established a foundation with educational and medical scholarships for Henrietta's descendants, so they can finally get some financial benefit out of her legacy.      

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