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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Well, this was a fascinating book to add to this year’s non-fiction list. 

Henrietta Lacks changed the world of medicine after she died. Referred to as HeLa cells, her cancer cells, used for research without her knowledge,  proved to be invaluable to the scientific research community, becoming a critical tool for research, development and drug treatments, and giving rise to a highly lucrative multi-million dollar industry. It was however, two decades before her family would know of and understand that impact. 

It’s a complicated story to tell. A story that begins in the 1950s when the world of medical research, practice, consent and ethics was very different. Viewed through today’s lens it raises issues about medical consent, research, poverty, access to medical treatment, racism, trust in institutions and medical ethics. At the same time it gives recognition to the science and medical advances that were made possible because of the unique nature of Henrietta’s cells.  And her family’s wish to see her recognised for her contribution to medicine is set against circumstances which meant they were unable afford basic healthcare. 

Whilst out of necessity there are many references to medical terminology and science, as a non-scientist I found it accessible and readable. And, she gives a human face to the story of Henrietta, her life and her family. It’s a thought-provoking and remarkable account.

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