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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the choice of the St Germans Book Group for May 2013 and it provoked a very lively debate. It is an interesting book, as intriguing in its subject matter as it is unusual in its format.

In her attempt to explain the origins of one of the most important recent medical phenomena of the twentieth century, Rebecca Skloot, a journalist by profession, has mixed popular science with biography that is rooted in social history. She tells the story of a poor Southern American woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells had an extraordinary property - they could multiply indefinitely when grown in culture. That was in 1951 and since then the cells have gone on dividing and have been used across the world in medical research. They have been vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; and helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.

Our discussions encompassed not only life, death and immortality, but also the contemplation of family life and family rights, the nature of 'personhood' and where and when cells from one's body no longer count as part of that person. There was an interesting debate on medical research ethics, how that has changed over time, how different places have different principles - inevitably with hotly contested views everywhere. We kept coming back to problems of capitalist cultures and how attitudes and experiences have been affected and this brought us to the underlying questions of the author's motives, her journalistic approach, questions of intrusion and of the rather sensationalist nature of the book with its focus on misery and dislocation.

Published by Macmillan, 393pp.

St Germans Book Group, Cornwall


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