Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
comic strip overdue media

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I really recommend

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the life of Henrietta Lacks, the remarkable cell line derived from her cervical cancer cells and its effects on science and medicine, and also what effect her death (and the cells' distribution and fame) had on her family.

I'm still working my way through it, but it's an excellent story, and the writer has a great deal of empathy for the family. It amazes me all the things that her cells, known as HeLa, were used for, and what good it has done in terms of research, curing diseases, developing vaccines, etc., but also so many things we take for granted about science and medicine today--informed consent, standards, HIPAA, etc. were so absent in the mid-to-late 20th century, and how respected pioneers in medicine did things we now consider unethical and opportunistic. It also helps the reader understand why medicine is distrusted by many African-Americans.

I recommend this book particularly if you are in the science or medical field, but anyone would benefit from reading it. I think if I were a professor in biology or medicine, I would require this be read by my students. From the beginning, Skloot sought to find the humanity behind the science, and I think it's important to remember that there was a woman behind those cells, a woman who was a young mother who never got to see her children grow up, a woman who dealt with poverty and racism on a daily basis, and a woman whose own suffering made it possible for many others to live.

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