Scientific and Literary Versions of Immortality

July 22, 2011 // Filed under Uncategorized

Memoirs and Coffee, one of Bernardsville Public Library’s book groups, will discuss Rebecca Skloot’s narrative nonfiction bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, at its next meeting, Tuesday, July 26, at 10:30 a.m. Pat Kennedy-Grant will lead the discussion which is open to the public. Please meet in the library Community Room.

Shown above in one of only a few extant photographs, Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who died in 1951 of a virulent form of cervical cancer after being treated at Johns Hopkins.  She left behind young children, a husband and many friends, but what her family did not know is that a biological legacy of hers was also left behind or, perhaps we should say, unwittingly taken from her.  That legacy is the untold number of HeLa cells (named after her) which were originally removed in a small biopsy by a Johns Hopkins doctor.

These cells were cultured and demonstrated to have a remarkable ability to self-generate in the laboratory. This virtually endless supply of cells still generated from her original culture have been applied by researchers around the world to advance the study of gene mapping, create the polio vaccine, develop chemotherapy and other medical breakthroughs.  While millions of dollars have passed hands because of the great demand for her cells, no money has ever been given to the family of Henrietta Lacks.  The troubled story of her family, particularly the children she left behind, and their struggle to grasp the magnitude of their loss is treated with sensitivity, honesty and also charm by the author.  The family’s personal drama nicely balances out the scientific information which Rebecca Skloot presents in very readable fashion in this excellent book.

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