This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, whose cervical cancer cells were taken without her knowledge. Known as HeLa, the cells have been vital for a huge number of scientific advances, yet Henrietta’s family remained ignorant of this work for many years.
The book is both a tale of the experiences of real people and a history of scientific development, covering such issues as racism, patient confidentiality, and informed consent.
Where did I get hold of the book?
I already owned it. I think I’d received it as a ‘prize’ at a local book group but had never got round to reading it.
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
I learned a lot about the medical practices of past decades and how they do/don’t differ from what we’re used to today. There are some things we take for granted that simply weren’t the case back then! And I discovered more about the background to several major scientific developments, such as the polio vaccine.
I also learned about the typical life experiences of poor, black, Southern tobacco farmers in the 1950s, which is a world I obviously have no personal knowledge of. The book features many quotes directly from characters in the story, so there’s a real sense that you’re getting a first-hand description of their experiences.
How did it make me see the world differently?
I realised that it’s impossible to have a concept of how some people live until it’s thrust in front of us. We can think, in theory, that we’re open-minded and aware of difference, but it’s only when we have shocking facts pointed out to us that we realise we don’t really know anything at all.
The book also gave me a better understanding of scientific progress. Although I am aware that it’s a hard slog and not just about the exciting breakthroughs, it was fascinating to read about developments over the course of several decades. The steps backwards, as well as forwards, all contribute to the understanding we gain of an area and, ultimately, help us figure out what we shouldn’t be doing as well as what is possible.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
I’ll continue to read more books about people from completely different walks of life, as a means of discovering more about the world. Indeed, that’s what this whole blogging challenge is about!
I’ll also apply a new-found enthusiasm for my work! I am a freelance information specialist for medical communications agencies, and one of the jobs I do is to check scientific manuscripts against the author instructions for different medical journals, to ensure that they’ve followed best practice and legal requirements regarding patient consent, confidentiality etc. Whilst this can sometimes feel like a purely administrative matter, a box-ticking exercise, this book has reminded me that these procedures affect real people with real lives.
So I will continue in my work with renewed gratitude for the recognition these issues have received over the years – thanks, in no small part, to the experiences of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!