Logo IMG
HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > March-April 2012 > Bookshelf Detail


Skeletons in the Biomedical Closet

Hugh Gusterson

2012-03BrevGustersonFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageRebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Broadway Books, $26 cloth, $16 paper), was published in 2010 and spent its first year on the New York Times bestseller list. And with good reason: The book has an epic quality that brings to mind Richard Rhodes’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Like that book, this one is big and sprawling, it tells the story of scientific research that changed the world, and it uses vivid detail to bring to life its human protagonists with writerly skill worthy of a novelist. But where Rhodes, following the classic conventions of science journalism, created vivid portraits of elite scientists whom he placed at the center of his narrative, Skloot breaks with those conventions by making her story’s center of gravity a poor, scarcely literate African American woman, Henrietta Lacks. Her virulent cervical cancer enabled the culturing of the first human cell line to be immortalized—reproduced in identical form over and over for use in an astonishing array of experiments.

Lacks did not know that her cells had been cultured. Neither did her family until they found out by accident a quarter of a century after Lacks’s death. By then freezer after freezer had been filled with Lacks’s cell line, that cell line had enabled momentous breakthroughs in biomedical science and great fortunes had been made in the process, with none of the money going to the Lacks family.

2012-03BrevGustersonFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageSkloot’s book interweaves with magisterial skill four different stories: the personal story of Henrietta Lacks and her family; the scientific story of the HeLa cells, as they came to be called, that were cultured from her body and the biomedical breakthroughs that followed; an American story of racial discrimination; and a social history of evolving research ethics over half a century. Throughout, Skloot operates like a journalistic detective, gradually winning the confidence of the Lacks family while unearthing skeletons in the biomedical closet. Although some of the experiments she describes are shocking, Skloot writes with humanizing warmth and empathy about all her subjects, resisting the traps of lazy moralism and sanctimonious judgment. The afterword on current controversies over informed consent and the commodification of biomedicine should be required reading for all students in the field.

If you haven’t gotten around to reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, make it first on the list of science books you read this year.

» Post Comment


Connect With Us:

    Pinterest Icon Google+ Icon Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Sm

Pizza Lunch Podcasts

African Penguins"Penguins are 10 times older than humans and have been here for a very, very long time," said Daniel Ksepka, Ph.D., a North Carolina State University research assistant professor. Dr. Ksepka researches the evolution of penguins and how they came to inhabit the African continent.

Because penguins have been around for over 60 million years, their fossil record is extensive. Fossils that Dr. Ksepka and his colleagues have discovered provide clues about migration patterns and the diversity of penguin species.

Click the Title to view all of our Pizza Lunch Podcasts!

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

  • Sigma Xi SmartBrief:

    A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.

  • American Scientist Update

  • An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.

  • Scientists' Nightstand

  • News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.

    To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: Keeping the Holmes Fires Burning

Book Review: “The Colonel Says”

Book Review: The Organ of Reality

Subscribe to American Scientist