Book Week: What is Spinoza Prize winner Cisca Wijmenga reading?
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, REBECCA SKLOOT
Geneticist Cisca Wijmenga’s tip is a non-fiction about Henrietta Lacks, a black woman suffering from cervical cancer in the United States in the 1950s. Someone removed cancer cells from her cervix without her knowledge; these cells then played an important role in all kinds of medical discoveries, such as the polio vaccine. Lacks died, but ‘her’ cells are still alive today.
Wijmenga especially loves the different layers in the book: it’s not just about the position of black people in the United States in the 1950s and the ethics of that time, but also about medical pioneers and their tenacity.
‘I never quite realised that someone, at some point, had to come up with the idea to grow cells outside of a human body. When I started working with cells, I took that for granted, but it’s only because someone had that brainwave. Those pioneers had to work so hard under such terrible circumstances; no money, in a dingy basement, risking their lives. It serves as a great reality check. We shouldn’t just take the things in our lives for granted.
Another thing Wijmenga learned from the book is that we have to put what happened to Lacks in context: ‘We might think that it’s ridiculous that people took her cells and used them without her consent. But most people do things with the very best intentions in mind. We have to look at it through their eyes, and don’t let the things we know now influence us. We can’t judge too harshly. Read the whole story.’
Wijmenga also learned that persistence is key. ‘You have to believe in yourself if you want to achieve things. This is especially important in the world of academia, and not just for medical scientists. We should all persist in what we’re doing.’ She recommends the book to everyone.