Thursday, December 23, 2010


Daughter Margaret gave me for Christmas The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I had read reviews of the book and wanted to read it. Margaret must have picked up my vibe by mental telepathy.

You will surely have heard of the book -- thirty-one weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, the current presiding non-fiction co-champ. Briefly, Skloot tells the story of a Johns Hopkins Hospital scientist who in the early-1950s took cancerous cells from a poor black woman while she was still alive, without her knowledge or consent, or that of her family. Her cells turned out to have the remarkable property of reproducing indefinitely in culture. All previous cells lines cultured in laboratories eventually died. Henrietta Lacks' cells (with her DNA), called HeLa cells, are still alive and reproducing in hundreds of labs around the world, a workhorse tool of cell research. They were instrumental in the testing of the Salk polio vaccine, and in many other positive developments in medicine. It has been estimated that if you piled all the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale they'd weigh 50 million metric tons!

The history of HeLa is to a remarkable extent the history of cell research for the past half century, and Skloot tells that story well. But her book is more than science. It is also the heart-wrenching story of the Lacks family, racism, scientific misadventure, and the gradual development of government regulation of scientific research on human subjects -- all in the shadow of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and the crimes of the Nazi doctors. Read it.

"Get the government off our backs!" shout the radical right. Well, yes and no. A civilized society cannot exist when government is unconstrained, as the horrific crimes of the Nazi doctors evidence. Civilized life is equally impaired when the rights of the least of citizens are not protected by enlightened government intervention, as manifested by the Tuskegee syphilis study and the sweet, sad story of Henrietta Lacks.

The art of civilization lies in creating just enough government to restrain human greed and ambition -- in science, in business, in environmental utilization -- even when that greed and ambition is ostensibly in the service of a good cause. Try to imagine life in the United States without the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control, for example. Rue too the current disparities in access to health care that disproportionally afflict the poor and minorities. "Get the government off our backs!" OK, off our backs. But for me, at least, I like having government walking at my side -- and at the sides of the Henrietta Lacks of the world.

Three cheers for health-care reform, for repeal of Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, and for government regulation of the banks and hedge funds. And three cheers for Rebecca Skoot, who has written a moving and instructive book, and who has used her success to set up a scholarship fund for the very mortal descendents of Henrietta Lacks.