The science is the basis of the story. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was being treated at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s with a virulent form of cancer. During her treatment her doctor harvested some of the cancerous cells for later study, and after her rapid and untimely death the cells were found to be exceptionally resilient and quick to replicate. From those initial cells the entire field of cell study was created, diseases were documented and cures identified--and then the cells, by then replicated trillions of times over and sold and shared to nearly every lab and country on earth, nearly brought the science to a halt because of their ubiquity and potential mishandling.
The mystery starts early in the account. While Henrietta's husband signed a consent form allowing an autopsy, no consent form exists for the harvesting of her cells earlier because none was ever given her to sign. That really is not a mystery since none was required.at the time; the mystery is that she and her family never understood that the cells had been captured and how they were being used. Skloot found from her research and interviews that Henrietta though she was being tested for cancer. Was it a case of Johns Hopkins intentionally withholding information from a working-class African-American woman so they could profit from her contribution (the view of some of her surviving family), or of a poorly-educated woman from a working-class family failing to understand the information provided by her doctor then disappearing into her Baltimore-area neighborhood with no contact information (the argument made by Johns Hopkins when the questions started).So far this sounds like a moderately interesting popular science history. The story moves to the next level when Skloot tries to find Henrietta Lacks in the literature (her cells are sold and labelled as HeLa) and her family in Baltimore and her birthplace in rural southern Virginia. Skloot found Henrietta's children very much alive and angry with Johns Hopkins, scientists, and reporters, who the family felt had lied to and exploited them over the years. Daughter Deborah didn't remember her mother when she lived, and was haunted by the science and fiction of what she understood about the cells and what they were used for. Skloot's request for interviews for her book were first accepted and then rejected as an off-again off-again on-again relationship Deborah and her father and brothers began that lasted for nearly a decade as Skloot earned the family's trust. Skloot doesn't shy away from her central role in the story, and the result is a fun, fast, sad, poignant, and ultimately satisfyingly human account.
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