Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks?
Way back in medical school, I'd learned was that HeLa cells were originally taken from the cervical cancer cells belonging to a young, black woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951. That they were the first human cell line that grew like crazy in cell culture, and were used to create the Polio vaccine which saved countless lives. In fact, so much research has been done on HeLa cells that chances are, every person has benefitted from Henrietta, in one way or another. I remember we all chuckled over the fact that over twenty tons of HeLa cells had been produced over the last several decades. Twenty tons of Henrietta!
But after the laughter died away, I was haunted by the idea that somehow, in some way, Henrietta was still alive. And that the story was a little too simply told.
What I didn't know then was this: that the cells were taken without Henrietta's consent. And that the family was kept in the dark while her cell line was sold and distributed throughout the world.
So while we writers and readers consider immortality, non-consensual scientific experimentation, and the oppression of the vulnerable in our sci-fi and fantasy books, it's important to note that these things aren't all fiction. They trace their imaginary roots in some very real history.
This was one of the best books I've read this past year, mostly because it's not just a book of facts--it's a story. It's about Henrietta, her family, and the tumultuous relationship between the author and Henrietta's daughter, Deborah. And what's most important, it opens up an extremely difficult dialogue about ethics, race, and science.
For more information, check out the Lacks Family Website, Wikipedia on HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot's website, and this recent CNN article that reminded me to write this post. :)