Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot does a great job researching the material for this book--one gets the feeling she could make anything interesting. It must have been a difficult book to write because of the yawning time lag since the death of Henrietta Lacks and sketchy family and town histories. But Skloot manages to make the material immediate, fresh, and personal by introducing us to the remains of the Lacks clan, and by sharing with us her route to uncovering the science that makes Henrietta Lacks immortal. The sheer doggedness of her pursuit and the art involved in making the story not only readable, but riveting, parallels the best scientific research, much of which is healthy doses of perspiration with dashes of inspiration. I am pleased to see the book reach the bestseller lists, not simply because this is a story we all need to know, but because Skloot has promised to set up a scholarship fund for the family with some proceeds from the book. That payback must come from this source is regrettable, but somehow payback seems required. Skloot tells us that people often ask if taking cells without permission is illegal either then (in the 1950s) or now (in 2010). It is not. But even asking the question makes it clear that those people have some sense that payback is required. What kind of payback would be fair is something we need to think on.

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