The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot-I don't know what I can say about this book that hasn't already been said. If you've been paying attention at all over the last couple of years, you've heard great thing after great thing, and they're all right. If you haven't been paying attention, Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who had cervical cancer in the 1950s. Her doctor took a sample of some of her cells and sent them off to a lab where they were kept alive and grown in solution, where they continued to reproduce. This was something scientists had been trying to do for years; something about Henrietta's cells were different, and today they are still used around the world for research. Her family had no idea that this was happening. It was by pure coincidence that they found out that part of Henrietta had been kept alive long after she passed away and that her cells had been used to help find the cure for polio, had been shot into space, are still being used for research around the world and are worth hundreds of dollars per vial. Meanwhile, many of the surviving members of her family could not afford the medical care they needed.
Although a few articles have been written about Henrietta in the past, this book finally provided her family with the long-awaited recognition of the woman who made so much scientific progress possible. It also provides a shocking look at patients' medical rights, past and present. You think that just because something is inside your body it belongs to you? If your cells miraculously develop the cure for cancer on their own, you would be entitled to some kind of royalty from that, right? Heh. Think again. Then find somebody to hug. Because thinking too long about the realities of the world can turn you into a big cynical jerk. And there's no way your body's going to find the cure for cancer with that attitude.
I said at the beginning of this review that I didn't know what else I could say that hasn't already been said, but actually I think I might have something. There were two little things in this book that made me smile when I read them: Henrietta and her cousins saving up money to go see the latest Buck Jones cowboy movies and Dr. Carrel's "immortal chicken heart," a 1912 scientific experiment which inspired the 1937 Lights Out radio program's "Chicken Heart" episode which inspired Bill Cosby's 1966 bit, "Chicken Heart." I grew up listening to Bill Cosby records, and he's the only person I've ever heard mention Buck Jones or Chicken Heart. I had no idea that "Chicken Heart" had its basis in reality! To see Buck Jones and the chicken heart mentioned in this book was like a little wink to my child-hood, but also added another layer to Henrietta's life and times.
So, thank you, Henrietta, for all that you have contributed to science and for reminding me of this great gem:
And here's the original Lights Out episode that inspired it:
I couldn't find the Buck Jones routine, but if you're interested, it's part of the "When I Was a Kid" album.
Here's what some others thought:
Lori L. at she treads softly
Heather J. at Age 30+...A Lifetime of Books
Kailana at The Written World and Michael at Books on the Nightstand both listed it as one of their Best of 2010