Science for Health
HeLa cells came originally from the cancerous cervix of a woman who died long ago. She was Henrietta Lacks and her cells live on still. This book takes you on a massive journey and paints a picture of the desperate attempts of its author to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks, and the desperate attempts of Henrietta’s family to close the door on the story. Rebecca Skloot took ten years to research this book; a testament to how seriously she took her work. She manages to talk the family round, but you get the impression it is because they know that the story must be told, and they finally have found a woman who is willing to tell it to the world.
The story is not just about the cells or their ‘owner’ but also about her family. Far from being a distraction, this adds to the story, and the breathtaking honesty of the storytelling makes it linger in the memory. It will most probably make you cry; it is incredibly moving in places. One moment that sticks in my mind is where the gruff and rather unstable family member is given a photograph of the DNA from within some of Henrietta’s cells. His response was touching, and was the first time we saw him express grace. This family went through a very tough time even without the added burden of the extensive and very public use of their family member’s cells. The cells were taken from Henrietta as the result of a biopsy and at the time there was no rule against doing so, but you come away from the book knowing that an injustice was done. It was hard for Henrietta and her family to know the implications of what giving away her cells would have meant. The family were wonderful throughout though; they say Henrietta would have wanted to do good, and that she would be happy to know her cells had saved lives.
I read the book in the space of only a few days it was so addictive and well written. Friends I have lent the book to all say how wonderful they found it and how addictive it was. The book won the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize.
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is published by Macmillan, 2010.
A full-length essay-review of the book is also featured in this year's Mill Hill Essays.
This essay was published in the Mill Hill Essays 2010
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