Business Times of Edmond, Oklahoma March 2020 - Page 29

BOOK REVIEW BY CAMERON BRAKE | BEST OF BOOKS The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Paperback: 381 pages Publisher: Broadway Books (March 8, 2011) In Review: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” W hen people who come to Best of Books in search of their next read ask me for recommendations, I am always initially tempted to rattle off my all-time favorites. I imagine this impulse is common for not just book store employees, but all readers. We want people to read and love what we read and love. However, I learned early on that this is rarely helpful. Rather than ramble on about my most cherished books and all the reasons they should be widely read, it is far more helpful to begin with questions. And the most important question is this: Which do you more prefer, fiction or nonfiction? I can give solid fiction recommendations from dusk till dawn, but my confidence with regards to nonfiction is, shall we say, shaky. This simply will not do. I have decided that it is well past time to experience the numerous joys of reguarly reading books that are Capital-T True. It took only 15 pages of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” to make abundantly clear just how much I’ve been missing out. Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in rural Virginia. Her great grandparents were enslaved, and her parents were desperately poor sharecroppers who worked the same tobacco fields as their enslaved ancestors. Henrietta would also work those fields as a child. This is where her life begins. Her life ends in a segregated cancer ward at Johns Hopkins in 1951. The medical treatments of the day were no match for the vicious form of cervical cancer that took Henrietta Lacks away from her family at the age of 31. Henrietta Lacks was a wife and mother. She was kind, stern, and beautiful. Like all African-American women of her era, she endured the horrors of virulent racism and sexism every day of her life. As is the case for nearly everyone, the life and death of Henrietta Lacks were both immensely fascinating and unquestionably ordinary. What sets her apart, what makes her one of the most important people to have ever lived is her cells. Henrietta died in 1951. Her cells are still alive today. And there are enough of them to wrap around the earth three times. Her cells were the first in human history to be cultured, the first cells to become immortal. Known by the name HeLa, her cells are in every laboratory doing any sort of research that requires human cells. They have been in space. They were used in the first nuclear bomb tests. Numerous medicines, vaccines, and medical breakthroughs were brought to us via work with HeLa cells. The creation of the HeLa cell line was one of the most important events in medical history. Apart from her tragic and painful death, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a purely happy story. Alas, it is not so easy. All of these breakthroughs, all of this wonderful scientific progress is the direct result of racist exploitation and unethical medical practices. While Henrietta Lacks lay dying in her racially segregated hospital bed, a white doctor took samples of both healthy and cancerous cells from her without explaining anything to her or her family. Those samples, taken without consent, would eventually provide the financial bedrock for the entire medical- cellular industry. Henrietta’s children, who are still alive today, never received a cent. What’s worse, they did not learn the full story of their mother’s cells for 20 years. Skloot’s presentation of the available records, testimonials and general history, combined with countless interviews she conducted paint a picture that is difficult to weigh. I have provided only an outline of the essential facts. This is an enormous story, and Skloot does a masterful job of presenting difficult scientific material in a way that anyone can easily understand. You need not be an expert in cellular biology to stand in awe of the work Henrietta’s cells enabled. All of humanity has benefitted from that work. Simultaneously, Skloot forces us to reckon with the jarring reality that the children of one of the most important figures in all of medical science cannot access even the most basic health insurance. Despite the billions of dollars generated by Henrietta’s cells, her family lives in abject poverty. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is the sort of book you will want to talk about with everyone you know. REVIEWER CAMERON BRAKE works at Best of Books, Edmond’s independently owned bookstore at 1313 E. Danforth in the Kickingbird Square Shopping Center.  March 2020 | The Business Times 29