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* Culture * Books * Science and nature The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In old-fashioned museums you can see the unconscious benefactors of mankind, trapped in glass cases: the freaks and monsters of their day, the anomalies, sometimes skeletonised and entire, sometimes cut into parts and labelled. When we look at them, fascination and repulsion uneasily mixed, we bow our heads to their contribution to knowledge, but it is hard to locate their humanity. The thread of empathy has frayed and snapped. They have become objects, more stone than flesh: petrified, post-human.

Henrietta Lacks
is a medical specimen of quite another kind. No dead woman has done more for the living, and yet we can imagine her easily from her photograph, a vivacious woman who was only 31 years when she died in 1951 in a "coloured ward" in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Beloved by her family, a lively, open-hearted woman, Henrietta died in intractable pain, and at the autopsy her body's interior was pearled by tumours. Towards the end she had been given only palliative treatment, but no one had explained this to her family, who still hoped she might be cured. She left behind a husband and five children, the youngest only a baby. But she also left behind a slice of tissue, a piece excised from the cervical cancer that was her primary tumour. From this sample her cells were cultured. Read More

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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