Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was one of the most celebrated nonfiction books of 2010, and now I see why. I polished off the audiobook over the weekend, and it's a fairly riveting tale about wife and mother Henrietta, who died of an extremely aggressive form of cancer at age 30 in 1951. As they used to do with alarming frequency, scientists took samples of her cancerous tissue (without permission) and discovered that her cells - this is where the immortal part comes in - could survive in the lab. The "HeLa" cells were used in a staggering number of medical research, including the first breakthroughs in the fight against polio.
Her family, too poor to even afford medical insurance, didn't find any of this out until years later.
It's a great story, one Skloot spent a decade investigating, and one she relates straightforwardly while posing pointed questions about who owns the rights to our bodies. While the fact that scientists routinely swiped tissues from patients (particularly African American patients) isn't a surprise, Skloot still elicits outrage and deep compassion for the children Henrietta left behind, particularly her daughter Deborah, who was haunted all her life by her mother's death and the mysterious circumstances under which she became "immortal."