by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway 2010, 2011)
Over the years, the University of Maryland’s First Year Books program has selected some pretty amazing books, and this is one of them. Rebecca Skloot became obsessed with finding out the story of the woman behind the HeLa line of cells which have been used by researchers around the world to find explanations for some of biology’s basic questions, as well as cures for some of our most feared diseases. The HeLa cells are still multiplying 60 years after being harvested from the cervical tumor that killed Baltimore mother of five Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge or consent. Lacks was a poor African-American with a limited education. Her family was not to find out for two decades that her cells were being used for medical research, and in the process were being bought and sold and shipped all over the country and the world. When they did find out, they were understandably angry. They wondered why, if their mother’s cells had played such an important role in the progress of medical science, they themselves could still not afford to buy health insurance or to pay for their own medical care.
Into their story steps young Rebecca Skloot, who spent about ten years tracking down the story of Henrietta, her children and grandchildren, and her amazing, seemingly immortal, cell line. Skloot describes how she slowly won the confidence of the Lacks children, who unsurprisingly did not trust a white reporter to deal with them honestly. She depicts them with sympathy and honesty. Along the way, she raises deep questions about race and medical ethics.
It was hard to put this book down–I finished it in only three days.