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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot I've started and erased my little book commentary so many times because this story is so overwhelming and so important on multiple levels, I'm not sure anything I could say about it would do justice to the complexity and dichotomy of the story surrounding Henrietta Lacks. It might not be far from the truth to state that she was the most important person who ever lived. A physical part of her body has saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives, and improved the lives of countless others. And her story is not over yet. Her cells are still being used in medical research all over the world. But these benefits came at the cost of a violation of her rights, in a time when it was commonplace for doctors and researchers to just do and take, without consent, especially among poor populations and people of color. Some of the things done with Henrietta's cells saved lives, some were heinous experiments performed on people who had no idea what was being done to them, in a grotesquely distorted and amplified reflection of what was done to Henrietta. Nuremberg was dismissed in the United States as something that only applied to the fallen Nazi's. Any act was justifiable in the name of science. And yet, some of the things done right her in our own nation were reminiscent of the research being conducted under the direction of the notorious Dr. Mengele.Reading certain parts of this book, I found myself holding my breath in horror at some of the ideas conjured by medical practioners in the name of “research.” Of course, we know.* Anyone who is even moderately informed on this nation's medical history knows about the Tuskegee trials, MK Ultra, flu and hepatitis research on the disabled and incarcerated, radiation exposure experiments on hospital patients, and cancer, cancer, cancer. The poor, disabled and people of color in this country, the “land of the free,” have been subjected to so many cancer experiments, it defies belief. Many of these trials, including some devised of Henrietta's cells, have involved injecting cancer, non-consensually, into human subjects. So while it is true that there can be utterly no doubt that our lives, and the lives of much of the world, are better, because of the knowledge made possible by parts of Henrietta Lacks's body, still acknowledgment of this reality comes at the cost of knowing that procedures were performed on her without her knowledge or understanding, and without her consent, with impunity; these actions were made even easier because she was poor, black and female, and this is to say nothing of the numerous and unethical violations of her (and her children's) privacy. It's an old story. It's a story that her biographer, Rebecca Skloot, handles with grace and compassion. Henrietta is not some medical spectacle, she was a real woman. If she has been deified by her friends and family since her death, it is maybe the homage that she deserves, not for her cells, but for her vibrance, kindness, and the tragedy of a mother who died much too young. There are a great many scientific and historical facts presented in this book, facts that I couldn't possibly vet for veracity, but the science seems sound, if simplistic, and the history is presented in a conversational way, that is easy to read, and uninterrupted by footnotes and references. Family recollections are presented in storyteller fashion, which makes for easy and compelling reading. Fact-checking is made easy by a list of references, presented in chapter-by-chapter appendices. Rarely do I read something that makes me want to collar strangers in the street and tell them, “You MUST read this book,” but this is one of those times. Henrietta's story is bigger than medical research, and cures for polio, and the human genome, and Nuremberg. Henrietta's story is about basic human rights, and autonomy, and love. It's about knowledge and power, how it's human nature to find a way to justify even the worst things we can devise in the name of the greater good, and how we turn our science into a god. This story is bigger than Rebecca Skloot's book. But I am grateful that she wrote it, and thankful to have read it. Would the story have changed had Henrietta been given the opportunity to give her informed consent? That's the thread of mystery which runs through the entire story, the answer to which we can never know. *documentation in this list is inconsistent, but most of these experiments can be independently verified.