Henrietta Lacks Was Screwed.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had been recommended to me several times before. I had seen its author, Rebecca Skloot, on the Colbert Report, and was amazed that she managed her very serious subject with the humor demanded by Colbert.
And the copy lent to me carried the validation of the Ted (“ideas worth spreading”) book club attached to it–a bright ribbon book mark heralding its inspirational affiliation. Smart, cool people read this book. And so I guess I should too.
First, I think this is a story you need to know about. It’s fascinating and it’s true. Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s, is one of the most famous contributors to modern medical science.
Upon her death, her cells were cultivated and grew like wildfire. They were cultured and sold across the medical industry to conduct endless experiments and enable medical breakthroughs on polio and cancer research and AIDS.
The book is a study in medical history, ethics, racial equality and a compelling personal story. It sounds like a really weird thing to say–but it’s kind of a page turner. I don’t find myself saying that about too many cervix-related books.
Okay, but here’s the thing. Henrietta Lacks received really no credit (to start) and certainly her family got no financial remuneration for the vast contributions she made to the medical field. In fact, the personal aspect of the story focuses on a family that is struggling to make ends meet, stay out of jail, and not shoot anyone.
Yep, there is really no way around the punch line:
Henrietta Lacks and her family got screwed.
And I feel terrible for saying this, but I am not sure that this part of the story needs to be an entire book. One could easily read it as one of those 9 page New Yorker articles. You know, the ones you just didn’t think it was possible for an article to be that long? I think that Skloot could have managed the personal side of the story pretty efficiently.
Don’t get me wrong. I read it in 3 days. I couldn’t put it down. It’s intriguing and well written and kind of suspenseful in its own kind of way. It would be a great book group book for those interested in the notion of medical privacy, who owns what (who knew! I don’t really own my tissue samples!), and how the research industry has evolved–you have yourself one firecracker of a discussion.
Maybe I just didn’t like that it didn’t have a happy ending. With all this attention on the Lacks family and what they had been through, I thought some type of redemption would come to them all.
But the punchline remained the same: Henrietta Lacks got screwed.