Sunday, August 1, 2010

Seeking Cellvation: HeLa Cells and Immortality


Interesting to find this cleverly titled essay by Hannah Landecker, published in 1996, which raises the many ethical concerns surrounding the death of Henrietta Lacks and the unbridled development of HeLa cells.  She was writing in response to a 1971 essay praising the work of George Gey, shown here.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks, Gintaras. This is an excellent analysis of the HeLa cell "phenomena" and helps uncover the underlying racist and sexist implications of the story, which in many ways Skloot seems oblivious to -- or at least unable to fully understand and reflect upon. Too bad Landecker didn't write the book.

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  2. I was so taken with this article that I just looked up what else she has written. Probably not any of our cups of tea, but here's the book that no doubt came from her dissertation:

    Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies, Harvard University Press, 2007

    Landecker now teaches at UCLA.

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  3. Sounds like it could be an interesting book. Can't remember offhand whether Skloot references Landecker in her bibliography, but it seems that the essence of her book is contained in this essay, and from her preface Skloot took interest in the story in the late 90s.

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  4. Skloot has no bibliography, explaining that her sources were "too extensive to list in their entirety." She does refer to the Landauer book in her notes, as providing a review of the scientific activities involving HeLa cells. The notes indicate a deep and wide reading in the relevant science literature.

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  5. That is kind of odd not providing a bibliography for a "history" book. The more I read, the more concerned I become about her level of scholarship.

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  6. Isn't the bib. incorporated into the notes?

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  7. Yes, the notes contain an overview of her sources. Not exactly "footnotes" but you can see the materials she has looked at there.

    I hate to jump in ahead of where you are, Gintaras, but the scholarship is definitely a mixed bag from my reading. Some of the "history of science" chapters are interesting and I'm assuming informative to both lay and more scientifically inclined readers -- like the mouse/human "hybrids" that Trippler mentioned.

    But she doesn't "see" the story in a bigger context the way Landecker does. And looking back through the book now, I still see it as too much about her as the glue to hold the parts together.

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  8. Very disjointed book. One gets the sense that this is more a work in progress and could have used more editing. It is only at about the halfway point where Skloot finally comes in contact with the family, presenting them in an all too stereotypical fashion. This may have been what it was, but it certainly could have used a little more literary polish.

    I think you are right, Carol, in that this book is more about Skloot's "awakening" than it is a serious study of the HeLa cell, or Henrietta Lacks herself. I suppose she was trying to tell this story in an oral tradition, but it just doesn't come together very well. Nevertheless, much of this information is new to me, so remain interested.

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  9. The Landecker book, Culturing Life, looks very interesting, as she appears to get more into the biotech side of it, past and present, with reference to the HeLa cell.

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  10. If it is half as good as the article she wrote as a student, it would probably be worth reading at some point.

    Donna Haraway (whom Landecker references) is another historian I really like who looks deeply into the "meaning" of these things. Difficult to read, but fascinating.

    Her "Teddy Bear Patriarchy" is brilliant, about TR and the American Museum of Natural History. I just looked, but couldn't find a copy on line, but I bet there is one somewhere.

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