If you want to bring science reading into your classroom and show why an understanding of science is needed by everyone and why scientists need to be aware that there is more to life than just science, then the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot should be a first read. This is an important book for the understanding of science in American history. It brings to light some of the debate over access to health care and access as well as policies within the scientific community.
The book is about the cancer cells removed in 1951 from Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five living in Baltimore, by doctors from Johns Hopkins. During the initial diagnosis and before the treatment of the cancer, samples of cancerous tissues were removed from her cervix. These cells were grown in a lab by Dr. George Gey, the attending physician and researcher, and eventually labeled ““HeLa”” cells after Mrs. Lacks's name. This was done without the permission of Henrietta or the Lacks family. Such taking of tissues during biopsies was a common practice, especially within research hospitals. HeLa cells have continued to be grown and cultured in tubes and plates around the world and studied by some of the most legendary scientists as well as many of the students taking biology today. HeLa studies contributed to some fantastic scientific discoveries, such as the development of the polio vaccine and of medicines used to treat Parkinson's disease and cancer, and the discovery of telomerase. HeLa cells have even been sent into space for study and have been so prolific that they have contaminated cell cultures worldwide. Over 50 million tons of these cells have been grown and studied.
The book follows three different story lines. First is the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family, both past and present. The life of poor African Americans in the 1940s through the 21st century in light of medicine is skillfully addressed. Second, the development of the HeLa cell line and its use in the scientific community is presented cells that seem to have a life of their own and have literally traveled around the world. Most scientists were in ““scientific denial”” or too arrogant to acknowledge the cells' ability to propagate. Third, and possibly the most important, are the bioethical issues surrounding the development of the HeLa cell line. Skloot does a masterful job of addressing the past practice of nondisclosure of medical information to patients. She highlights well the suspicious view of the medical profession by African Americans after the Tuskegee syphilis studies of the late 1940s, and how often they felt that they were the test subjects for many untested or experimental procedures. In the words of Henrietta's daughter Deborah, ““If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors?”” Past and current laws surrounding scientific research are addressed in a way that removes science from the lab bench and puts it in front of the judiciary bench. Yet even Deborah's own words warn us of letting one side dictate to the other: ““Truth be told, I can't get mad at science, because it help people live, and I'd be a mess without it. I'm a walking drugstore!””` Skloot helps the reader understand the need for both science and ethics, and a need for both to work well together. Are your students willing to look honestly into this issue in the same way that the Lacks family has had to address it?
Skloot's writing is highly respectful of the Lacks family and of the science and the scientists involved in this story. She shows how scientists like Christoph Lengauer help to bridge the gap between the research world and the people whose lives have been personally touched by cancer. His personal respect for the patient was pivotal in helping bring the story to completion.
Even though the switching from science to culture, from past to present, and from writing the story to living the story can be somewhat distracting, I rate this book five frogs, a must read for you this year and a must read for your students.
ELIZABETH COWLES teaches freshman biology, biochemistry, and entomology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has taught at the undergraduate and graduate college levels for over 20 years. Her interests include insect toxicology, protein characterization, and astrobiology. Cowles holds degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cornell University and Michigan State University. Her address is Department of Biology, ECSU, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.