I first heard about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot way back in November when I found it through a website called Make Me Required Reading which makes recommendations and highlights books that might be worthwhile in terms of educational value to be used in the classroom. It sounded fascinating then, but I promptly forgot all about it until it came up as one of the suggestions for my book club to read in to discuss at our next meeting.
We tossed around quite a few titles, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; Let The World Spin, by Colum McCann; The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; and The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich were just a few that were considered. Revolutionary Road and Henrietta Lacks were in a dead heat until the tie was broken over a game of bocce on Sunday and one of my teammates cast her vote for Henrietta Lacks.
Suzanne at Bibliosue did a really nice summary of the book:
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman living in the Baltimore area in the late 1940s. She was married and had five children; after the birth of her fifth child she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the hospital (Johns Hopkins, at that time one of the few hospitals in the area who would treat “colored” patients), her cancerous tumor was removed and the cells sent to a laboratory at the hospital.
After this Henrietta’s cells were used without her knowledge or consent and sent to research labs around the country and used in studies and scientific research to make numerous medical advances while tragically, Henrietta died and her family suffered from lack of medical attention and coverage. I can’t wait to dig into this one. The first thing that it brings to mind is the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that were performed on black men in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Researchers in that case wanted to study the natural progression of syphilis and prevented the men from receiving proper treatment even when penicillin was discovered to be an effective cure. Poor black sharecroppers were targeted for the trials, and several men in the study died and/or passed the disease along to their wives and children as a result of lack of treatment. My grandfather was a former sharecropper and could have easily have been taken advantage of in one of these studies, which were “justified” because blacks would benefit from future availability of treatment programs.
The circumstances in the two cases are not completely the same, but the hideous ways that these families were preyed upon medical and research professionals goes a long way toward explaining the reluctance and trepidation that some African Americans feel toward receiving medical treatment. The Tuskegee Experiment is the reason that there has to be informed participation and consent in research trials today, so at least some good came out of such evil.
This should be some book club. I haven’t even opened the book yet and already I’m angry!
Edited To Say: I am so glad that this post is generating such an interesting discussion. I’ve only read about the book so I don’t have any real answers but please check out these videos on Rebecca’s Skloot’s website. I have a feeling that they might at least partially answer some of the questions that we all have.