Fascinating science-meets-biography book about the life, and afterlife, of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman from Maryland who died of cervical cancer in 1951, but whose cancer cells were cultured for use in medical research and her HelLa cells are used by researchers worldwide.
Rebecca Skloot first follows her own fascination with the elusive Henrietta Lacks, but her 10 year investigation and writing of this book was spent mostly in the company of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah who was only 4 when her mother died. As well as scientists and medical staff, we meet the extended Lacks family, and the book provides a real insight into the life of the poor in America and the African-American experience in particular.
Two of the key themes are the evolution of ethics relating to the use of human tissue/cells in medical research – particularly in the US where research is so commercialised and the profits from a successful outcome runs into the US$ Billions, none of which flows back the person from whom the original matter was taken – and the gradual emergence of the requirement for informed consent.
And, putting her money where her mouth is, Rebecca Skloot established The Henrietta Lacks Foundation when she published her book, which went on to be a best seller in the US. The Foundation’s mission is:
Helping individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.
I wasn’t sure if it would be wise to read about someone else‘s move from London to Herefordshire at this stage in our version, but I am glad I did.
Light in tone (decidedly cheesy in parts) with more than a few laugh out loud moments, it was also reassuring to follow the Viner family’s first year and to see that such a move does work. And that ours is not the only Herefordshire home that comes with resident mice and flies! It also inspired me to head up to Leominster sooner rather than later.
Not sure we will be having a marquee level party if we are still here in a year, but you never know….
It may have been because I’ve been so immersed in moving, and with all the subsequent sorting out and settling in, that I found this volume of Granta essays and stories much slower going than Hidden Histories.
On the other hand, it might have been the weightier subject matter. I did skip a few of the accounts relating to 21st century atrocities.
That said, I did enjoy the pieces on Benjamin Pell and Bollywood.
Just right for dipping in and out for bedtime reading on the lead up to our move to Herefordshire. I particularly liked the last essay, Giles Foden‘s White Men’s Boats, and the personal histories from Diana Athill and Brian Cathcart.
And I’ve just spotted the Giles Foden has written a full length version of the hidden history of the World War I British naval expedition to Lake Tanganyika, overland, led by the inept Geoffrey Spicer-Simson: Mimi and Toutou Go Forth.
Thought provoking biography and exploration of many of life’s key themes – morality, duty, life, death – and, most of all, how to find meaning in life and how to live a meaningful life.
Paul Kalanithi is on the cusp of completing his training as a neurosurgeon when he discovers he has lung cancer. He is 37 years old and one of the best brain surgeons of his generation in the US, blending expert surgical skills with deep human empathy.
This book is his posthumously published memoir contemplating his career and his medical training, the importance and significance of his relationships with his family and friends, and how he copes with the choices he makes as a doctor / surgeon and then as a patient and a husband.