Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Very interesting new title,

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

44 comments:

  1. Wow, this looks absolutely gripping! Many, many thanks for bringing it up here, Gintaras.

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  2. It does look very good, NYT. I love books that explore avenues in history like this.

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  3. A rave review in today's Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/books/03book.html

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  4. This link takes you to a interview Skloot did on NPR yesterday--I'm sending it to a bunch o' folks hoping they'll listen and talk about it with me. My mind has been going back to this story since I first heard of it. (Yes, I know the opera title "The Mother Of Us All" has already been taken.)

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123232331&ft=1&f=13

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  5. Thanks for the link. Interesting interview.

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  6. See how prescient I was linking this book all the way back in February : )

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  7. Welcome back, Gintaras. You're always ahead of the times!

    I'm in DC for 10 days -- way too long for this time of year -- but hopefully the book will be there when I get back.

    In the meantime still reading about the "culture wars" in France as I have time. The more history I read, the more I am beginning to think that there are "archetypes" in history just like in literature. We just seem to live the same stories over and over again.

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  8. Yea, but not smart enough to figure out I was still calling it the September Reading Room.

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  9. I bought the book and expect to share it with one of my daughters after our conversation, or before, if she thinks she'd like to participate and you all are willing to have her. I also have to say that I was horrified by the general illiteracy of the people who commented on the Smithsonian interview. I hope Skloot doesn't send the scientists to the guillotine. She doesn't in the interview, and iirc, she didn't in the npr interview which I heard way back when. I hope that remains the case. Maybe I'm in for an education here, though.

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  10. I read it during the past week and thought it was very good. It's part science but even more about the family survivors of Henrietta Lacks.

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  11. Carol and Marti:

    Glad you're both reading/enjoying the book. Hopefully, I'll have a copy of it waiting for me when I get home.

    From what my biologist friends have told me, it's the scientists who are in a snit, not necessarily because of what the book says about them, but because of what the book says about the family survivors. Some people just don't want to know -- and there has apparently been millions, probably billions, of dollars made in scientific discoveries, etc. which is what I'm assuming the foundation is all about. Can hardly wait to read it now! Thanks, NY, for keeping after us.

    Carol, if your daughter does read the book and wants to discuss it with us, point her in this direction. Doesn't require any special permissions, although the nice thing is that you do need to know how to find us! We are sort of a safe haven here (see "Let them eat cake" above....).

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  12. I confessed I finished the book (couldn't wait or even slow down, others may feel the same once they take it up). I even found myself examining all the acknowledgements--10 years worth!--and notes/sources.

    However, it could well take me until August to find a way to think about all the issues it raises and the tale(s) it tells.

    The last book that showed the 10 years it took to write was the Oppenheimer bio, "American Prometheus." Speaking of which, I saw Kai Bird on BookTV lately talking about his memoir "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis 1956-1978." No cause for optimism for those who expect progress in that region, at least in this generation.

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  13. Carol's daughter joining in would be terrific. Oh, how I wish I could get my 17-year-old daughter to read the book, but recognize it may be a while before she would be interested. My older daughter--a nurse--might well be the very one to pass the book on to but she's deliriously happily pregnant and might not be receptive for a while. (If all goes well, I will be oh-so-happy to take on a new role in March. All advice welcome.)

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  14. Congratulations, NY, on your upcoming grandmotherhood.

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  15. Thank you kindly, avrds, it will indeed be most welcome (and long awaited -- Paul Simon was right, it is indeed an age of miracles and wonders).

    As for Henrietta Lacks, when you read it, you'll see why I'm considering (for the first time in my life) painting my toenails in tribute. Actually, I can even envision painted toenails on a poster for the opera based on the story.

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  16. Is there an opera in the works? Sounds perfect from what you have said.

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  17. I ordered the book but won't get it until mid-July. Looking forward to it, judging from the comments here.

    I too thought American Prometheus was excellent, NYT.

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  18. I'll set up a new post at the first of August for the discussion.

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  19. As far as I know, the only HeLa opera is in my mind, though the subject could certainly carry such a weight. Perhaps I thought of an opera soon after recalling the Oppenheimer book because there was an Oppenheimer opera, "Dr. Atomic," which I tried to watch--honest, I d id--when it was on PBS not so long ago. Actually, the problem was not watching it, it was the listening that I wasn't up to. A very different kind of music would be suitable to the HeLa tale, methinks.

    Thanks again to you, gintaras, for your efforts in motivating/facilitating the forum.

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  20. Perhaps the Carolina Chocolate Drops could do the music for your opera. They are a really delightful group.

    As for the book, so far I've found it disappointing, as if Skloot couldn't quite decide whether to write a diatribe or a true novel a la In Cold Blood or an actual nonfiction book. The subject matter is interesting, of course, although I'll have to admit my bias, which is that I don't think Henrietta's family is owed any kind of compensation for the HeLa cell line, although to the extent they participated in later genetic research (I'm just getting to that part, apparently) they may well be. She was owed the best standard of care for the time, and it appears she received it, not the fate of numerous other persons on whom experiments were done, but then no one was doing experiments on her, just on treating her cancer. So I wait to be convinced that I am wrong. Or WRONG, as the case may be.

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  21. tempsperdu, I was volunteering at the step sale at the Main library this afternoon and straightening up the tables where children's books can be found. It made me happy to think of all the wonderful books you can start to acquire for that baby on the way. If you're lucky at the step sale, they're only $1, and come in several languages most Wednesdays. An advance welcome to the wonderfulness of grandmotherhood.

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  22. Thanks much Carol, for the step sale schedule. I am usually an avid purchaser at those when I happen across them but missed this time. True, the packrat tendencies of yours truly (who had children in 2 generations as well as corollary and honorary relatives in a complex extended-family web, spared not the books in any) and elementary school teacher husband have led to a garage already groaning with books for all ages on shelves, in boxes, etc. Who knows, by the time impending youngster gets to be of reading age, actual between-covers books may be as outdated as the LPs that fill up many another shelf and box.

    As for the Skloot book, or any other for that matter, I don't think I've ever maintained that anyone was wrong (or WRONG) in their reactions. I do note you wrote about what she/her family was owed/not owed, while my put-down-the-book-for-a-while moments had mostly to do with the story, the sheer scale of the unanticipated results of an event as insignificant as a biopsy. I guess that's what I thought of as operatic. (BTW thanks for the music recommendation--I don't know that group.) Still, does it not seem something of a irony that her descendants are without access to healthcare?

    I'll wait for other readers.

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  23. I LOVE the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Classical musicians meet jug band music. Perfect match.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdLRCSOZ7wo&a=8LHcI9w-yJA

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  24. Completely by coincidence, I got a CD of their music for my birthday--can't help wondering what the woman who has the office next to mine thinks when I play it to animate the occasional drudgery. It can be almost too twangy at times--do you know and if so what think you of Iris Dement?

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  25. Iris Dement is almost a genre unto herself. The first time I heard her, on Prairie Home Companion, I believe, I thought something had gone wrong with the tape delay, but I've learned to enjoy that melancholy nasal tone. Had the Light Crust Dough Boys wanted a girl singer for their noontime performance she could have done the job.

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  26. Another of my real favorites. Her Infamous Angel is always in my car. If you want a real treat, get John Prine's CD of duets, including a couple with her. Can't remember what it's called but it has a black and white photo of a malt shop or something on the cover. Amazing music.

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  27. What a fine-sounding pairing!

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  28. At last I got a copy of the book from my local library. It appears to be a quick read.

    I personally am no stranger to government experimentation as my mother was one of the 200,000+ women who were forcibly sterilized in the government's genocide campaign in Puerto Rico during that same era:

    http://www.u.arizona.edu/~lbriggs/PuertoRico/forced.pdf

    http://womenst.library.wisc.edu/bibliogs/puerwom.htm

    When she was pregnant and carrying my older brother she became very ill as a result of a deliberate poisoning at a government clinic. She was told she had to be sterilized as it was the pregnancy that caused her illness (but she refused). When she was pregnant and carrying me, she got deathly ill (again, as a result of a deliberate poisoning) and those same Nazis did all they could to pursuade her to abort. She begged off and this is what saved my life though she agreed to become sterilized. To her dying day my mother never acknowledged she had been sytematically poisoned (by the way, she had been a star athlete in high school and was the picture of perfect health prior to that time) even though the facts in her case reflected the same experiences other Puerto Rican women from that era.

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  29. Whoa, trippler, that's incredible. What was the nature of (or substance used in) the "deliberate poisoning" -- do you know?

    I've bookmarked the 2nd paper (nothing came up when I tried to bring up the 1st) and will definitely explore it when I can.

    (Quite a few moments in the Skloot book may give you pause. They did me even without such a connection. Amazing...)

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  30. Back in the late 60s and early 70s I was acquainted with several Puerto Rican activists in City College of New York and NYC Community College. They had documentation and made a couple of documentaries on the subject. Unfortunately, I do not recall any other specifics as this was close to 40 years ago. But it was incredible how the problems my mother reported were precisely the same complaints made by several women in Puerto Rico in those days.

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  31. I am surprised that you did not get the first link as I found it again immediately. You sure your PC can pick up PDF links?

    Above, I indicated "same complaints made by several women in PR". I wish to clarify that our family was acquainted with other families where pregnant women also made these past complaints. This in addition to thousands of others who reported the same things.

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  32. Got it that time--maybe I wasn't patient enough 1st time around. Thanks for getting me to try again and for bringing to light something I had no idea of.

    You may not want to dwell on the particulars, will investigate through the articles linked.

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  33. About 80 pages into the book and thoroughly enjoying it. Reminds me a little of "Praying for Sheetrock." Will set up a new page Sunday, August 1, to begin discussion.

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  34. I still haven't received my book -- I think the Fed Ex trucks are on vacation -- but the university has a copy so I'll stop by today and see if I can check it out.

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  35. Ever so glad you're liking it, Gintaras, esp. since you put it up in here in the first place--virtue rewarded!

    I'm very much looking forward (looking very much forward? very much forward looking?) to coming back here 8/7 or 8/8 to see what all y'all have to say.

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  36. Look forward to your comments as well, NYT. The discussion probably won't be in full swing until your return. Have a pleasant holiday : )

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  37. And I can be the contrarian of the group. The book is compulsive reading -- I couldn't put it down last night and am almost halfway through already -- but I _hate_ her style.

    Should make for an interesting discussion.

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  38. Avrds, it's that style that has made reading the book such hard going for me. The melodramatic swooping, usually in undramatic places - just puts my teeth on edge. I'd love to read Atul Gawande or the equivalent on the ethical questions at the heart of the story.

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  39. This will make for a great discussion. I can't remember who said it, but it's something like if we all thought alike, there'd be no reason to think at all.....

    Look forward to it!

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  40. I can't say her writing style bothers me particularly, especially after reading Brinkley. But, I like the subject very much.

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  41. Well, after reading Brinkley, reading the phone book would be a relief. Somehow I managed to read every page -- dedicated or stupid as the case may be.

    But yes, as for Skloot, I'll probably finish reading the book tonight or tomorrow at the latest. Fascinating!

    Funny that the Rolling Stone story comes up when she goes to Baltimore. I vaguely remember that story at the time.

    Carol, did you know Mike Rogers? He was one of that SF/Berkeley group that included McChesney at the time. Looking up the spelling of his last name, I see he is now a "futurist."

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  42. And in another small world connection, I once worked with Ananda Chakrabarty -- in Montana, believe it or not -- and had a great portrait of him taken holding a petri dish. I wonder if that dish, too, was contaminated with HeLa cells.

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  43. Diane, I swear I posted a reply to your question about Mike Rogers. McChesney and I were close friends before he came to California. I think I've seen him only once in 40 years. But I heard him on the radio yesterday or the day before. I remember when he was reporting from the wars in Chad; scary, scary, the real Year of Living Dangerously.

    I don't know Mike Rogers. Should I try to make his acquaintance? I'm interested in the future myself, in a casually existential way.

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  44. From what I can tell, Rogers is now an east coaster now:

    http://michaelrogers.com/

    Don't know where McChesney is, but I got the impression he was back in the Berkeley area from one of his radio reports -- but that was awhile ago.

    I didn't know you knew him _before_ California. But then a lot of my SF friends during that period were from Texas. We probably have more friends in common than we even know! (My guess is Rogers was adopted into the group when he was at Stanford.)

    Hope you have stuck with Skloot (what a name!). I finished the book last night -- well worth reading, although I will argue she's all over the place in telling her story. My guess is she didn't have enough information to write a history of science book or a biography, so fleshed it out with all the trash talk and other asides about herself, etc.

    I'll try to wait though until Gintaras gets us started on our discussion.

    Look forward to everyone's comments. Great book for a group discussion.

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