This is the first post in my “What I’m Reading–Personal Reads” series. Stereotypical, I always feel like I don’t have enough time to read, but I try to carve out personal reading time whenever I can. It’s hard sometimes, especially after I’ve spent a whole day reading journal articles and books for research. That makes it hard to feel up to reading in my free time in the evenings. But reading is important to me, both for how much I really do enjoy it, and for how much one can learn from reading. I read both fiction and nonfiction, and print books and audio-books (I’m not a huge fan of e-books though, I already spend too much time looking at screens., e-ink or not…).
And so, without further ado, my first “What I’m Reading” post!
HeLa cells are a wonder of nature. These human cells are immortal. They continuously reproduce, indefinitely, under laboratory conditions.
HeLa cells have done marvelous things for humanity, from helping to discover the polio vaccine, to aiding in cancer research. HeLa cells have been cloned, irradiated, and sent into space. Over 60,000 articles have been published about HeLa.
You can even purchase your own vial of HeLa easily, and fairly inexpensively, online.
HeLa isn’t a new story. It’s been around since the cells were first harvested and grown in the 1950’s. Scientists around the world have learned about, and been using HeLa, for decades.
The real story, the jaw-dropping, nauseating true side of the story, is that HeLa cells were once Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman born in 1920 whose cells were taken by a doctor and used in medical research…
…without her knowledge or consent.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an eye-opening and highly engaging book. This book gives life back to HeLa, giving a name and a person to the anonymous cells and investigating the long and controversial history of informed consent in medical research. For while Henrietta’s cells were indeed taken and used without her consent, that was not in fact illegal. As Skloot describes, it is still largely not illegal today.
I enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because it was well written, with an easy narrative and rich details. Skloot does not try to deny the amazing importance of HeLa, it seems as if even her family (who were completely unaware, for decades after their mother’s death, that her cells were still alive and widely sold) are grateful for the good HeLa has done. What The Immortal Life does so well, and what is so important, is remind the reader, and the world, that HeLa stands for Henrietta Lacks. She was a real woman, with hopes and dreams and struggles. One who had no say in what happened, and continues to happen to parts of her body.
Skloot did not seem to be advocating for the end of the use of HeLa cells. In fact, after reading the book, it seems highly unlikely that such a thing would even be possible given how pervasively HeLa grows and survives. Instead, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks was about giving Henrietta back the other 12 letters of her name, giving back her identity.