From a clinical point of view, Mrs. Lacks never did well…. As Charles Dickens said at the beginning of [A] Tale of Two cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ But it was the best of times for science in that this very peculiar tumor gave rise to the HeLa cell line…. For Mrs. Lacks and the family she left behind, it was the worst of times. Scientific progress and indeed progress of all kinds is often made at great cost, such as the sacrifice made by Henrietta Lacks.
When I started this book, I wasn’t sure if I will be able to finish it. The subject matter – biology, science, non-fiction, medicine – seemed out of the genre of my interest.
But, this book is just too captivating. I was hooked pretty much from the first page. The human element of the book was what drew me in this book. The author was able to very accurately capture both sides of the side – one is Henrietta Lacks and her family and the other side is the scientific innovation and progress. The first half of the book follows the author’s research about HeLa cells’ origin and the person whom they came from. The second half follows the author and Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter and their journey to make peace with the truth.
While reading this book, I was not able to pick a side. I have read many reviews and people’s opinions about the questionable medical ethics. But I felt and strongly agree with what Deborah said:
… if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different …
Times were different. Medical science was in its embryonic stage. Medical professionals were in uncharted territories. Those cells were of no use to the Henrietta, but they were a gold mine for medicine. Yes, the doctor’s should have been more forthcoming, but their actions were for the greater good. And I can’t hold it against them. Mistakes were made, I agree. But I feel they learnt from them and have improved. And isn’t that what being human is all about?
I would highly highly recommend this book. Doesn’t matter if you know about HeLa or not? It is a very important story, that has shaped the medical science of today. And more importantly it also about perseverance and patience of the author and Deborah to learn the truth, loyalty towards the Lacks’ family, the love and bond of a family.
And for all the readers and non-readers out there, HBO is doing a film adaptation of the book, staring Oprah Winfrey (Deborah Lacks) and Rose Byrne (Rebecca Skloot). Being a huge Oprah fan, I will definitely be watching it. I am really hoping they do justice to the story as Rebecca Skloot has wonderfully done in the book.
Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.
The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.