In February 2017, Women’s National Book Association released 100 Fiction Books by American Women and 100 Nonfiction Books by American Women. The fiction list features works that fall in the genres of fiction, poetry, and memoir. The nonfiction list, excluding memoirs, features the true accounts and achievements of American women.
With HBO set to air its adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this Saturday, we continue our coverage of the 100 Books Lists highlighting the bestselling book of the same name written by Rebecca Skloot. The film stars Oprah Winfrey as Deborah, a daughter of Henrietta Lacks, and Rose Byrne as the author researching Lacks’ story.
Skloot, an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and New York Times Magazine, dedicated over ten years uncovering the story of Henrietta Lacks. The full extent of her legacy was unknown even to her family.
Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, was the mother of five children when
she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Before Lacks’ quick and untimely death at the age of thirty, and unbeknownst to her, doctors took her tissue samples. To their surprise, the cells continued to multiply in the lab. Dubbed HeLa, the immortal cells led to groundbreaking advancements in science and medicine. They were instrumental in the creation of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization among others.
Though the cells have been undeniably beneficial to mankind the world over, the sales of the HeLa cells continues to be controversial. They launched a multimillion dollar industry, yet neither Lacks nor her family were compensated for the use of her cells. Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave. The family continued to live in poverty, and ironically had limited access to healthcare. Doctors even tried to conduct research on the Lacks children without their consent.
In her multiple award winner and #1 New York Times bestseller, Skloot composes not only a biography of, but memorial for the previously uncelebrated and uncredited Henrietta Lacks. She gives a history lesson of science, medicine and civil rights of the 1950s. An affluent white patient would have been treated differently by Lacks’ John Hopkins doctors, and possibly even history.
Decades later, Lacks’ unwitting contribution to science is a source of pride for her family. Skloot became the founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, whose goal is “to help individuals and families who – like members of the Lacks family and descendants of the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies survivors – have made contributions to scientific research unwillingly or unknowingly.” Likewise, the book covers ethics, race, medicine, healing and helped one particular Lacks child get to know the mother she never knew.
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