Monday, October 17, 2011

A Biographical History of Science

Two nonfiction in a row! Well what can I do? I am but a cog in the wheel of the library reserve system... and at the same time GH's Regency World was ready, so was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  But what was I doing reserving a book on the story of a black woman whose cells were developed into the first, and most successful, cell line in the world? Well the long and short of it is that it was recommended... by Naomi G (that's abg's aunt, if you couldn't figure it out :)) when she saw me reading Intuition.  It was an If you like... then you should read... The problem of course, is that I didn't exactly *like* Intuition :) But it was highly recommended, and there were lots of reserves on it at the library, so I knew it couldn't be all that bad, so there it went, right on my reserve list.  Though I didn't get around reading to read it for quite some time (see previous post for my good reasons :)), Huvi read it almost right away.  Her comments did not encourage to think I'd particular enjoy the book, since she was talking about how horrible it was the way black people were mistreated in medical experiments.  Not that she's wrong, of course Tuskegee was horrifying, but I didn't find it *that* inhumane to use someone's cells without his/her knowledge for medical research.  But Huvi did seem to find the book interesting enough, so I didn't think it'd be torture or anything.

The book, as it turns out, is in part social commentary, in part biological history, but mostly biographical.  Rebecca Skloot sets out to recreate the life and personal legacy of Henrietta Lacks, to remind us that there was a person behind the HeLa cells.  It's a laudable enough purpose, but not a topic of general interest (general being me, of course :))  The most compelling aspect of her personal life story was how absolutely not pretty it was.  These were people with some family structure, but no education, and no money.  There's jail time, infidelity, multiple forms of abuse, mental illness, STDs, and a general unpleasantness with which I do not recall coming often into such close contact.  The state of the black population in the fifties was sorry indeed if the Lacks are any example (I think they probably are not).   And the Lacks of today (or of the nineties) are not much better.  There's still a lot of crime and a lot of anger, little education and no sophistication.  I almost wonder if Rebecca Skloot means to portray the Lacks so unflattering - they seem to blow off the handle at nothing and exhibit little understanding of the complicated affairs surrounding their mother's cells.

Which is what keeps the book from getting too preachy.  Yes, scientists did not treat blacks well in the fifties.  But it's not like anyone really thinks they perpetrated a huge wrong against Henrietta Lacks when they cultured her abandoned tumor cells. Her family thinks they deserve monetary reward, that their mother might have suffered, but her family doesn't appear all that credible.  And there is plenty of evidence on the other side that the scientists would *still* be legally mostly in the right (with the exception of exposing HeLa's identity) and that morally, they really did very little even questionable.  The greater ugly story of black and other minority experimentation is explored, but not with any aim toward villifying the greater community of scientists, and particularly not condemning those involved in HeLa cultivation.  It is horrifying that in the 1950s scientific research was so primitive with regards to subjects rights, but it's gratifying that we have come a long way.   And regarding the moral issues that still plague research, and in particular tissue research today, The Immortal Life is quite balanced - I find myself mostlhy in agreement with Ms. Skloot, with the exception of a few bouts of scare-mongering which I think are there mostly to argue towards the book's relevance.

What I wish the book had more of is the actual science.  I really know nothing about cell culture and I had never heard of HeLa cells.  I (along with I'm sure everyone else who reads this book) find it fascinating that one single cell line has spread so pervasively throughout the cellular research world.  And tracing the track of scientific and medical discoveries since the '50's feels miraculous - the advances of biology and genetics are made concrete through the careful timeline of HeLa through history.  I don't know if I would have been able to read a book that emphasized the science more - Rebecca Skloot's talent is certainly adding human interest to the story and I can't imagine her getting enthusiastic without that angle.  And I can guarantee that the book flows a lot faster because half of it is tales of the Lacks and of various other human players.  I guess this book really is similar to Inutition in that there's a lot of interesting science and research methodology mixed with a human tale - but unlike Intuition, the science is the reason I read the book.  And the truth is, maybe I felt it was dumbed down by all the other stuff, but I think I actually learned quite a lot - and not only that, I think it will stick in my head, and that's because of the book's vivid and sympathetic style.   I have to say, there's a reason it's a bestseller - compelling, easy reading and something for quite a few folks.

Verdict: 3/5

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