Dixie Darr

Another Genesis

In Books, Learning on April 19, 2017 at 12:34 pm


Take a human cell, measured in micrometers. To metrically challenged Americans like me, that’s one millionth of a meter, less than one tenth the width of a human hair. Yet, laid end-to-end, if such a thing were possible, the cells of Henrietta Lacks would circle the globe at least three times.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31. Her cells – taken without her knowledge — did what no previous cells had ever done. They continued to live and reproduce outside her body. Nobody knows why, but they became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. They even went up into space, so scientists could see what would happen to cells in zero gravity.

A book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, came out in 2011. I was slow getting to it, because frankly a book about medical research didn’t really appeal to me. It is about medical research, but it is also about a daughter’s search for a mother she never knew and about the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of. A fascinating story.

Now it’s an HBO movie starring the always notable Oprah Winfrey and starting Saturday. You can read about the science in the Smithsonian magazine or listen to a podcast at RadioLab.

It’s a story about the power of microscopic cells but also about the ideas those cells enabled. Here’s the thing about ideas: they’re even smaller than cells, taking up no space at all, and they can conquer the world.


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