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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 250px.jpgThis past weekend’s international science communication conference, ScienceOnline2010, also saw the first, final hardback copies of Rebecca Skloot’s long-awaited book make it into the hands of the science and journalism consuming public. Moreover, an excerpt of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has just appeared in the new issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine. And already, those online science communicators who left the conference with Skloot’s book are registering their praise via this Twitter feed that was so active it was a trending topic at the science aggregator, SciencePond.

The story of the rural, Virginia woman who descended from slaves and developed cervical cancer in the early 1950s is notable most obviously for her tumors giving rise to HeLa, the first immortalized human cell line continuously maintained in culture. I have noted previously my enthusiasm for this story as both a long-time admirer of Skloot’s writing and the fact that HeLa played a central role in my PhD thesis work and first papers from my independent laboratory.

But as a historically black college professor at a predominantly liberal arts school, I want to make clear that Skloot’s book is of far broader appeal than just the scientific community. So I was delighted to see some page referral hits from Skloot’s site which told me that my pre-press comments in that regard had been posted in academic publicity of the book.

So here is my “blurb” from the page, “What Professors Are Saying About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”:

“No student or biomedical scientist should be permitted to broach the barrier of a cell culture hood without reading Rebecca Skloot’s, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks … the story of the rural Virginia woman whose aggressive cervical cancer gave rise to the most famous of immortalized cell lines is full of lessons in science and humanity that should be read by all who are involved in research and patient care. Basic scientists in particular, whose work is usually more detached from direct patient interaction, will especially benefit from this poignant account of a woman and family whose experiences epitomize our embarrassing history of medical injustices against poor, underserved minority communities … The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks illustrates the need for responsible mentoring of scientific trainees and demonstrates the importance of clear and compassionate communication skills. When a medical student can’t understand why an African American patient vehemently refuses to enroll in a clinical trial, they need only visit some of Skloot’s accounts of Lacks Town and other black communities and read about the “colored-only” clinics of major medical schools to see how the profession fostered mistrust even in recent history. Skloot’s book is so much more than a medical history text … she became immersed in black Southern culture, slowly earned the trust of the Lacks family, and shared in the joys, frustrations, and pain still shared by black families across the South today. What is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks really about? Science, African American culture and religion, intellectual property of human tissues, Southern history, medical ethics, civil rights, the overselling of medical advances? The difficulty in defining the book is also what makes so appealing to academics in both the arts and sciences. The book’s broad scope would make it ideal for an institution-wide freshman year reading program but it is versatile enough for incorporation in special topics coursework for medical and graduate training or health disparities courses in public health programs. Of course, the book will be an excellent choice for extracurricular discussion groups ranging from university honors programs to working scientists and cell culture user’s groups … The abundance of moving passages in this book is enough to make even the most stoic scientist to take pause. Skloot is a master of the written word who skillfully weaves the cultures of reason and tradition, from the laboratories of Johns Hopkins to the churches of Clover. This is a work of science and the heart.”

Forthcoming February 2, 2010, you can pre-order from your local independent bookseller, or online via AmazonBarnes & NobleBorders or Powell’s

Pre-ordering the book is a mutually-beneficial proposition.

First, Amazon, for example, is currently offering the book at a 34% discount off the retail price – almost $9 off – an offer that will disappear on the release date.

Second, I learned that all book pre-orders count toward a book’s first-week sales, the major determinant of subsequent momentum and popularity of the book. Being such a vocal booster of this book, the story, and the author, I urge you to consider pre-ordering the book in the next two weeks if you have any inkling that you will ultimately be interested in reading it.

My active involvement in popularizing the story of Ms. Henrietta Lacks is just one way that I can acknowledge the role that her gift has played in my scientific career.

*This blog post was originally published at Terra Sigillata*

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