THURSDAY, 4 NOVEMBER 2021The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot describes the acquisition and distribution in the 1950s of the first immortal human cells to grow in a laboratory. Taken from Henrietta, an African-American woman, without her consent, these cancer cells completely revolutionised medical research
The writing is vivid and evocative, and the descriptions of the science (Henrietta’s cancer treatment included temporarily sewing a tube of radium inside her cervix) are a striking reminder of both the pitfalls and progress of scientific research.
The scientists are a memorable cast, including a eugenicist researching organ transplantation to preserve the ‘superior white race’, scientists injecting prisoners with cancer cells to see if that would cause cancer (it did), and a doctor who patented and sold his patient’s cells for his own profit.
The book centres around Henrietta’s life and descendants, especially her daughter Deborah. Doctors and reporters would intermittently contact the family for blood samples or personal information, though the family gained little understanding of what had actually happened to Henrietta’s cells until decades later.
This gripping book gives a nuanced insight into the history of informed consent in medicine, researcher accountability, and the consequences of biological research unchecked by good policy.