Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Audiobooktext
Henrietta Lacks: Not many people know who she is. And yet, she is one of the women who made many advances in scientific research. But Henrietta wasn’t one of those researchers, no. She was just a patient with invasive uterine cancer. Doctors took a few cells in an attempt to grow them outside the human body. The experiments tried so far are very inconclusive, the cells dying quickly. But what they will discover is that Henrietta’s cells are particularly tenacious and that they will be the first to survive in an external environment and especially to divide and proliferate successfully. A big step forward in medicine …
It is during a biology course that the author hears about Henrietta. Or rather her HeLa cells, as they are named after the patient’s initials.
Rebecca Skloot then undertakes research that will last for years to discover the woman who was hiding behind HeLa. Henrietta is a low-income black woman who could barely read, married at a young age and mother of many children. A courageous woman, Henrietta endured terrible suffering which her cancer caused without saying a word. She died in 1951, at the age of 30, from the illness which had been misdiagnosed by doctors.
At the time, many medical laboratories tried their hand at in-vivo culture attempts in order to cultivate human cells and to be able to carry out all kinds of experiments. It was in this context that Henrietta’s cells were taken, without her or her family being notified. It turns out that its cells will demonstrate exceptional longevity and that they will spread to all existing laboratories, in which they are still found today. Each researcher produces his own experiments and many innovations will result from it: cell freezing, polio vaccine, DNA composition, cancer and AIDS research, testing and sending cells into space, cell banking , testing the effects of the atomic bomb, etc …
However, it was not until many years later (20 years!) that the Lacks family discovered the benefits offered to science that their mother had left them as a legacy. A reverse shock that will turn their lives upside down and make them feel betrayed and despoiled by hospitals and doctors that they themselves cannot afford! Strange and unfortunate paradox!
Rebecca Skloot has undertaken to tell us in a completely accessible way the story of Henrietta, her heirs and that of medicine. She proceeds to an intelligent construction which alternates the chapters between purely scientific sections of medical research, family history of Henrietta and her disease, and her own research on the Lacks family. These 3 tracks alternate in each chapter thus avoiding boredom or scientific overdose of facts. the beginning of the work will be more concentrated on the history of Henrietta and on the scientific research of the time while the 2nd part will be more oriented towards the heirs of Henrietta and “journalism” (term of the daughter of ‘Henrietta) by the author.
For my part, the history of cell research and all the scientific advances that have resulted from it is what interested me the most. The journalist brilliantly manages to explain complicated facts without being too drowned in scientific jargon obscure for any uninitiated reader. It was a real discovery to understand what makes medical progress today. We will learn that scientific progress has not always been rosy and it is sometimes done to the detriment of some people. Note for example human guinea pigs unaware of the treatments applied to them.
Beyond the history of the research itself, we will discover the contemporary repercussions and the major questions which may affect us today or tomorrow: use of your organic “waste” without your authorization, commercialization of human tissues, ethics of medicine, …
The other part convinced me less. Rebecca Skloot recounts in great detail her own investigations into contacting the Lacks family. She ends up meeting them as best she can and forms a certain relationship with her daughter Deborah. If these parts constructively shed light on the negative repercussions of HeLa on the Lacks family by evoking the children’s ignorance of their mother, the commodification of parts of their mother that were never shared with them, the total ignorance of the concepts and scientific advances by the uneducated family, the author’s difficulties in building his book and finding lost information, the procrastination and moans of the family ended up annoying me somewhat and would have required to be very lightly cut. The author has perhaps lingered a little too much on the unhappy but nevertheless legitimate aspect of this family and on the tedious aspects of his investigation which in the long run bored me a little.
Nevertheless, this document remains in my opinion extremely interesting because of the light it sheds on our medical history, of which everyone should know the first bases. (why don’t we learn this at school?) Knowing by what path, what experiences but also what paths, men have come to such a level of knowledge about humans seems important to me to know what and to whom we owe our health, our longevity, our care. A book that not only looks at our medical past but also broadens the subject of our own future. What place do we give to humans in medical research? Can we accept sacrifices on the altar of general well-being?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is ultimately a good popularization essay on the origins of modern medicine through the story of a woman who offered, despite herself, the key to unexpected scientific progress. But it is also a treatise on the future challenges of research which will also have to advance on the ethical and financial concepts of science.