Culture Dish

i-770c31d229f8d0d95f5ffc37baea5c26-Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.small.jpg

Calling all academics: If you’d like a free advanced copy of my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, get thee to Random House’s academic blog and request a copy quick, while supplies last (which probably won’t be long at the rate things are going). See below for more information on the book, and advanced praise. Added bonus: If you teach the book this spring, you can also get me to come speak at your school/in your classes as part of my book tour.


Here’s Publishers Weekly on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with
this multilayered story about “faith, science, journalism, and grace.”
It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism,
poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very
different women–Skloot and Deborah Lacks–sharing an obsession to learn
about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells.
Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore
when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge,
doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her
cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously
productive, cell line–known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical
discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so
poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the
eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children.
Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant
and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.
Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no
judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells
a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and
how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people.

- Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

Comments

  1. #1 BGT
    November 6, 2009

    Rebecca, will you be doing a book signing at a Memphis bookstore?

  2. #2 Mariel
    December 13, 2009

    Yeah, I use HeLa’s. But I think those Chinese hamsters deserve a biography, too. They do a lot of the heavy lifting. :-)

  3. #3 P
    December 15, 2009

    The development of Hela cells is not a tale of how modern science can “exploit society‚Äôs most vulnerable people.” Ms. Lacks died of her advanced cervical cancer, so I’m not sure how culturing her biopsy was exploitation. The law says that a person’s discarded tissue and cells are not their property. So, if there was a consent form there would be no issue here, right?

    Ms. Lacks did not donate her tissues, so why she should be honored for something she had no cognizant involvement in initiating or developing. It was pure bad luck that her cells would grow well in vitro. She deserves as much or little recognition as the many thousands who have donated biopsies, tissues, organs or bodies either knowingly, or unknowingly to the advancement of science.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    December 23, 2009

    I think that commenter P (#3) may underestimate the exploitation of Ms. Lacks and the Lacks family as well as the true contribution of Ms. Lacks’s biopsied tissue. As I’ve said elsewhere, even I thought I knew the whole HeLa story until I read a pre-print of this book.

    One has to truly grasp the medical attitudes toward African Americans in the 1950s, a history of mistreatment and exploitation that extends back to slave ships. That Ms. Lacks was put in a position to have bits of her cancer excised for cell culture attempts may not seem offensive by today’s standards where we each are likely to have tissue samples in repositories somewhere. But one must follow this event and the subsequent actions of the medical establishment to secure further tissue samples and information from Lacks family members without any consideration, compassion, or simple common decency. I would encourage P to read the book when it comes out and then reconsider if the Lacks family was not exploited.

    As for the cells themselves, yes, yes, Ms. Lacks did not give up her tumor tissue because she intended for the cells to be propagated and studied worldwide – her tissue was taken to the lab unknowingly and without consent. But cultivation of the first immortalized human cell line opened the door to understanding how this could be done for more intractable cells in culture. Go back and read some of the 1950s papers by Ted Puck, Richard Ham, and Harry Eagle on the requirements for mammalian cell growth in vitro. Many of these papers using HeLa cells appeared in Science, Nature, and J Exp Med – certainly not inconsequential journals.

    But let’s step back for a moment as humans who stand on the shoulders of our forebearers: how can you look back on the breadth of discoveries enabled by the availability of HeLa cells and not feel some debt of gratitude toward this woman? How can one not feel compelled to honor her suffering and that of her family? For me, that is reason enough for this story to be told with reverence and respect.

  5. #5 sherilyn price
    February 2, 2010

    I think it’s disgusting that you are STILL stealing from this woman. A foundation to educate sciencists? You mean the kind that stole her body parts in the first place? How does this help the family of Henrietta Lacks? Too many people have already benefited from this unfortunate woman. Why do you deserve profit when her family doesn’t?
    I hope you never make a dime! YOU ARE AS EVIl as those who came before you. That’s why you’re not religous. You are as soul-less as your slave owning ancestors! I wish you the same Hell that I hope they are all roasting in~!

  6. #6 Rebecca Skloot
    February 2, 2010

    Sherilyn: You have misunderstood the foundation entirely. Read the description at http://www.henriettalacksoundation.org. The foundation is providing scholarship money for descendants of Henrietta Lacks — this money goes to her family, and others like them who want to study science but can’t. This is something that Henrietta’s family is benefiting from directly.

  7. #7 Zuska
    February 3, 2010

    P and Sherilyn both demonstrate either unwillingness to read what has been written or lack of reading comprehension of what they have read. Between the two of them, I might be inclined to have more sympathy for Sherilyn, since there is more historical reason to be suspicious of exploitation whereas P’s lazy who-gives-a-shit attitude is really quite inexcusable.

  8. #8 Ed Yong
    February 3, 2010

    Following on from Zuska, it’s especially inexcusable because the entire reason we’re having this discussion is that there is now a book that lays out the story very clearly. Reacting to an opportunity to rectify your ignorance with knowledge by digging your heels in and loudly repeating your uninformed stance is the tactic of a 6-year-old.

  9. #9 Harry
    February 3, 2010

    This book is not on my “must read” list… right after the USMLE

  10. #10 Harry
    February 3, 2010

    This book is ***now** on my “must read” list… right after the USMLE

    *** what a horrible typo!

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