Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I've been looking for a book for biochemistry seminar that combines the issues of biochemisty and biotechnology with those of social issues and history and what it's like to be poor and sick and not understand science. I also want a book that describes science accurately and fully, makes scientists out to be real human beings (acknowledging their skill and talent while avoiding deification, or demonization, of them or their work), and also has a place for faith in the process of healing. And I'd like a book that takes an unflinching look at issues of race.

I didn't know such a book exists till I read this one. And now I know what book we'll be discussing next year in class. I don't know what scene stands out most:

-- the ingenuity of the mad scientist and practical pack-rat who first discovered that the cells from Henrietta Lacks's tumor would grow and grow and grow;

-- the harrowing descriptions of Henrietta Lacks's sickness and the toll that tumor took on her body and her family (extending years past her own death);

-- the prophetic cousin who quotes 1 Corinthians 15 and helps a worried and torn-down woman to lay down her burden with prayer and speaking in tongues (pracitcally an exorcism in the middle of a popular science book!);

-- the beautiful art of DNA that calms a man who was angry from birth;

-- the amazing power of the cells that would grow on motes of dust and invade other cultures causing millions of dollars in damage;

-- the moral murkiness of the scientists who took/stole the cells in the first place and who perhaps deserved to have millions of dollars of damage done to their work ...

... but my favorite scene must be when the white science-book author is suddenly called upon to preach in an African-American (probably AME?) church, ending up describing HeLa cells to a chorus of "amen"s and "hallelujah"s. The author is not independent from this book -- the author herself is drawn into it and changed by it.

Henrietta Lacks lives! READ THIS BOOK. It has my highest recommendation.


Deanna said...

The hold list at the library is rather staggering.

Anonymous said...

This book was featured in the Edible Book Festival, but at the time(2 weeks ago) I had never heard of it. Now I have, and I'm intrigued...