A spate of stormy mountain days made sure I could tackle my summer reading list in my cozy cabin here in the north woods. I confess to having three or four books always going at the same time — several Kindles in the car, at home, on my phone, along with Audible books for driving, I’m never far from turning the page (or at least swiping the screen!). I’ve just finished these books and highly recommend them:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
Thanks to Luce Professor Dr. Patrice Moss and the science faculty, the story of Henrietta Lacks became well known at Trinity last spring when a special event focused on this remarkable story. Henrietta Lacks should be enshrined in every hall of fame, known to people globally, revered as the source of remarkable medical advances during the last half century. Instead, she remains relatively obscure in the popular imagination, a figure known perhaps to scientists, many of whom are more likely to know her by the name of her “immortal” cells, HeLa cells.
Thanks to Skloot’s incisive, compassionate reporting, the world now knows much more about Henrietta Lacks and her family, and the scientific, ethical and moral issues swirling around cell research. Lacks was a mother of five children, a poor tobacco farmer in southern Virginia, a black woman living in rural America in the pre-civil-rights era. She developed cervical cancer and died in 1951. Before she died, her surgeon removed a sample of tissue from her diseased cervix, and the scientist Dr. George Gey soon discovered that unlike any previous efforts to cultivate cells in test tubes for research, Henrietta Lacks’s cells did not die, and instead, multiplied rapidly. Soon, the HeLa cells were shipped to laboratories all over the world, becoming the most frequently used line of cells for all kinds of medical and scientific research. Tragically, however, Henrietta never knew that the cells were taken from her body, and her family only found out about the cells more than 20 years after Henrietta’s death.
Skloot’s story relies heavily on interviews and family memories to give life and personality to the woman most scientists only know through their microscopes as HeLa. For decades, her name was repressed and identity ignored. Her children and family received no compensation for the worldwide use of her cells in research and development of treatments for many diseases. As late as 2013, the genomic sequence of the HeLa cells were mapped and publicized without permission of the family.
This book is enlightening and infuriating, revealing the gross injustices of a medical and scientific research system that to this day remains profoundly insensitive to the human beings whose body parts, cells, organs, fluids and synapses are the stuff of research, discovery, innovation and breakthroughs in treatment methods. While issues of race and social class clearly influence the story of Henrietta Lacks, patients of all backgrounds remain vulnerable to the exploitation of their tissue samples and cells in scientific research. The scientific community objects vigorously to the notion that patients should have an absolute right to control the use of their cells (taken, for example, in bloodwork for routine procedures or just about any kinds of hospital procedures that require blood or removal of tissue). Equally serious is the lack of compensation for people whose tissue samples wind up leading to medical discoveries and innovations that make scientific and medical entrepreneurs quite wealthy.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be required reading for all students of science, public policy, ethics, civil rights history and social justice concern — just about everybody! I look forward to more discussions of this remarkable woman and her story in the months to come.
Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
When I first started reading Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale Oryx and Crake it had not occurred to me that it was a fitting parallel to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — but in a strange way, Atwood’s vision of a world contaminated by the lethal results of corrupt scientific manipulation of cells, leading to the creation of new and dangerous life forms and biological agents, is a clear segue from the reality of cell research to the potential for worldwide catastrophe if society fails to impose clearer and more compelling ethical standards on research. Oryx and Crake introduces the aftermath of a world exposed to a manufactured viral pathogen that goes out of control. The title characters are strange lovers, their story told by Snowman, a man who thinks he is the only remaining human on the planet. The story is full of genetically spliced animals (pigoons, wolvogs, rakunks) and the desperate search for some kind of safety and security in a world gone mad.
The Year of the Flood is Atwood’s second novel in the trilogy that tells the tale of other characters surviving the biological catastrophe first revealed in Oryx and Crake. In this novel, as the first, Atwood’s vision for a world ruined by runaway science controlled by corrupt corporations is, at once, fascinating and terrifying. The final novel in the series MaddAddam is on my Kindle waiting to start!
What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer
From science and dystopia to real dysfunctions, thrills and chills on the campaign trail. Students of politics, government and human behavior should love this book. The late Richard Ben Cramer’s insightful, in places, pungent analysis of the lives and motivations of the men who ran for the U.S. presidency in 1988 is widely hailed as one of the best campaign narratives of its kind. Why 1988? That was the end of the Reagan Era, a turning point for American politics and American life. The candidates were all compelling characters: George H.W. Bush, the eventual victor despite his profound elitism and remoteness from real life; Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee whose brilliance succumbed to his mind-numbingly bureaucratic ways; Gary Hart, one of the great “what if” candidates of the last half century, falling to rumors of scandal in the era before Bill Clinton made dalliances seem almost a routine part of the candidate’s repertoire; Dick Gephardt, working so hard and yet having so little to show for all that hard work; Bob Dole, war hero, salt-of-the-earth Kansan who could not shake his nasty image; and Joe Biden, who still desperately craves the top office, caught up in the ideological clashes of Supreme Court nominations as he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, along with rumors about truthfulness, and then a shocking moment of real life when a stroke took him out of contention.
Beyond the immediate story of the campaign, told in edge-of-the-seat snippets, Cramer tells the backstories of the lives of these men — how Dole made the long recovery from his war injuries, how Bush made his way in the Texas oil business, how Biden survived the death of his first wife and children, how Dukakis carried the hopes and dreams of his Greek immigrant family.
While the campaign was more than 25 years ago, the ripple effect continues to this day. If Biden mounts a serious campaign for the presidency in 2016, this book will surely resurface as an important source for What Makes Joe Run.
More to come!