by Rebecca Skloot
When Henrietta Lacks– a poor, African-American mother of five– died of cervical cancer in 1951, neither she nor her family knew that cells from her tumor had been taken without her knowledge. Henrietta’s aggressive cancer cells were the first to grow, thrive, and replicate in culture. Soon these so-called HeLa cells were offered for sale for use in experiments. HeLa cells were used– among many other things– to develop the polio vaccine, and uncover the secrets of cancer and viruses. Henrietta Lacks’ family, on the other hand, knew of none of this until more than 20 years after her death. Rebecca Skloot weaves multiple tales together, telling of Henrietta’s difficult upbringing, the troubled lives of the children she left behind, the history of HeLa cell research and the ethical dilemmas surrounding informed consent. This book is not a relaxing read– it will make you think, and it doesn’t leave you with any easy answers– but I found it difficult to put down.