Friday, June 10, 2011

SciReadr on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks From: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on

This book won the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize, selected by a jury of the "Great and the Good" (Clive Anderson, writer Maggie Gee, the notorious A.C. Grayling, medical historian Michael Neve, and TV presenter Alice Roberts). More than that, it has been a great commercial success, selling millions of copies, and is currently being made into a film. So it must be good, right?  Well, that depends what you're looking for. Rebecca Skloot recounts the story of Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line, HeLa, that came originally from her cervical cancer cells in 1951. Specifically, the book deals with the dealing with ethical issues of race and class in medical research. The story is driven along by Skloot's easy writing style, and larded with verbatim encounters with members of the Lacks family. It's interesting, and it's worth reading.

But is this a science book? Not to me. To me, this is journalism - reportage - or possibly a campaign. Actually, several campaigns, one on behalf of the Lacks family and one relentless marketing campaign for the book that Skloot has been quite open about during the ten years it took her to write it. Is this science? My (unfashionable) view is no, it's not, because Skloot has crossed the line over the role of author in science - too close, not sufficiently dispassionate. Is it a bad book? That depends what you're looking for. I'm not prepared to say this is a bad book any more than I'm prepared to say Glee is bad television. Read it - you may love it. Read it and make your own mind up.


1 comment:

  1. Rebecca Skloot presents her story of Henrietta Lacks and the result of the HeLa discovery with candor and excitement. The novel is clear about the facts, but the presentation lets the reader see the beauty in real life.