Oddly, I had just started reading this on recommendation from my mother when I got an email that it is required reading for the biology seminar I'm taking (I am NOT sciencey folks, it's an honors requirement.) So it was half for pleasure, half for school, and I think that is fitting as this story is half what interests me and half biology.
This book is a bit of biology and a bit of history. It's about the story of HeLa cells, the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black patient at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Her cells were taken to be grown in a culture, to study cell development. This was the first successful cell culture, and the results were unparalleled, leading to the discovery of cures, vaccines, treatments, and various developments for polio, syphilis, cloning, chemotherapy, and the mapping of genes. To this day, HeLa cells are found in almost every laboratory, from colleges to hospitals to research centers, and it was made possible by George Gey's research on Henrietta.
This is where the story gets interesting for people who don't like biology or science all too well.
Until the author, Rebecca Skloot, first heard about HeLa cells in high school, no one had been interested in the person behind them. Skloot embarked upon a journey over a decade long to find out not only the origins of the cells, but the surviving family of the patient -- I can't say donor, because these cells were taken not only without her consent, but she died never knowing it happened. Controversy and the legality of actions is a big part of this story, and it is truly a gripping read.
Half of the book is detailing Henrietta's life, death, and her family, and the relations Skloot had with them to write the book and get all the facts; the other half details the biological history of her cells, and the developments in medicine. The interesting parts is the role she played so unknowingly in the passage of many laws regarding informed consent and racial discrimination.
Much that keeps Americans alive today is because of what was taken from Henrietta Lacks, and her family can't even afford health insurance.
The surviving Lacks family today, at the Henrietta Lacks memorial plaque in Lacks Town, Virginia.
I think the New York Times summed it up perfectly saying, "this is the riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine," and it's absolutely beautiful.
4/5. Well done Mrs. Skloot, and thank you for your persistence in your pursuit of the family, and for having a passion so motivated and driven to last you the decades it took to find your answers.