Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A scandal of apathy

This post doesn't have much to do with origins, but I just read an astonishing book, and I want to tell you about it. The book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. If you don't recognize the name Henrietta Lacks, perhaps you know her cells: HeLa. They made the modern medical revolution possible. Everything from polio vaccine to cancer treatments to the human genome project traces back one way or another to HeLa. Did you ever get a vaccine? Know a cancer survivor? Then you've probably benefited from HeLa-derived therapies.

Skloot's book tells the story not just of the cells but also the woman they came from and what happened to the family she left behind. I could tell you all about the book, but I don't want to spoil it. Besides, everything from Nature to Entertainment Weekly is running rave reviews, and their praise is well deserved. ABC News has an interview with clips of Lacks family members. There's not much I can add to what's already been said.

The title of this post is the phrase that kept coming to my mind as I read. In the immediate story of Henrietta and her cells, events that led to the establishment of HeLa never seemed deliberately exploitative, but what happened was scandalous nonetheless. It was a scandal born of carelessness and apathy toward a human being and her family, yet we all continue to reap the rich rewards from what happened. I feel angry and deeply grateful all at once.

All I really want to do is thank Rebecca Skloot for writing it. It would have been very easy to be condescending or even exploitative, but Skloot never sank to that level. She portrayed the Lacks family with truth, dignity, and compassion. The book opened my eyes. It's amazing.

Learn more at RebeccaSkloot.com, the Lacks family website and the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

And read the book.