Spreading Good News (Part 186 – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

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TODAY’S QUOTE

A MAN IS HIS OWN EASIEST DUPE, FOR WHAT HE WISHES TO BE TRUE HE GENERALLY BELIEVES TO BE TRUE.  ~ Demosthenes

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TODAY’S BLOG

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is highly recommended as a fascinating, and informative read.

In case you haven’t heard of or read the book, here is the book jacket information.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Doctors took her cells without asking.  Those cells never died.  They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry.

More than twenty years later, her children found out.  Their lives would never be the same.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as “HeLa.” (The first two letters of her first and last name.)  She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine.

The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.  If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.  HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in-vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent.  And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits.  As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells.  Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells?  And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Columbia Journalism Review; and elsewhere.  She has taught non-fiction in the creative writing department at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh, and science journalism at New York University.  This is her first book.

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About Line of Serenity (Joyce Fields)

As a thought leader for today's generation, I choose to be part of the solution and am doing things that positively impact people's lives. In addition to being a happy, married (since 1967!) woman, sister, aunt, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, I have over 40 years' experience in "Corporate America": Stenographer, Secretary, Supervisor, Analyst, Office Manager, Executive Assistant. I am also a professional proofreader and the author of eight books (seven non-fiction; one children's fiction--http://www.GoodShortBooks.com).
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