Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Cells

In graduate school, I had one professor who we dubbed the “walking bibliography” during our Culture and Society in Healthcare course. Every time someone would postulate out loud, Dr. Potter would rattle off a string of books to look into, including title, author, and (I’m not kidding) publication date. And this was on a daily basis. Thanks to the lovely Dr. P, I discovered this book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I loved this book so much that it now graces my personal library.

It's a bestseller for a reason! Go check it out!
It’s a bestseller for a reason! Go check it out!

I am so very thrilled that this book has been the hit that it is. In my opinion, there is not enough public discourse about biomedical research; there seems to be a veil that it hides under, the general public only getting glances of it when someone is close to a breakthrough or if something sensational happens. Examples of this would be the new MERS-CoV virus in the Middle East and Europe in the past few weeks, or the past month’s baby girl that has been “functionally cured” of HIV. Much like the line in the movie Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” I feel that the same is being said about Henrietta and her ‘immortal’ cells. Focus on the magic, what is in front of you, and not the truth behind the curtain–that there is more to the story than many people know.

My undergraduate alma mater is using this book (!) as it’s Common Experience reading this fall. The Common Experience is, “An annual program designed to cultivate a common intellectual conversation across campus, to strengthen the sense of community at Southeast and in the region, to encourage open discussion, civil discourse, and critical thinking, and to enhance the reputation of Southeast as a regional center of learning excellence.” (From http://www.ius.edu) My Honors Program is hosting discussions on the book, and they’ve asked for me to join the discussion (via Skype) in Novemeber and April. I am so beyond thrilled that they’ve asked me to be a part of this!

The biochemist in me loves that people are reading about how researchers solve problems. The research technician in me is excited to talk about my experiences using HeLa cells in determining new drugs to use to combat breast cancer. The bioethicist in me is dying to talk about the cultural and social barriers that affect healthcare as well as the laws governing who really owns our bodies. I am so, so excited! But it also means more work–time to read this book again and assemble some notes before I get so lost in medical mumbo-jumbo that I lose all of my insight. At least this is a fun sort of work, and a distraction from all the chaos that will happen between now and August 1st.

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4 thoughts on “Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Cells

  1. I read this book in my health services class last quarter and I loved it as well! It brought up a lot of issues dealing with medical ethics and taught me a lot of history too. Also, thanks for following my blog!

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