Review: The Butchering Art – Dr Lindsey Fitzharris

014 - The Butchering Art

014 - The Butchering Art

Rating – 4*

This is the first of many reviews for books on the Wellcome Prize 2018 Longlist. It definitely isn’t for the squeamish reader as it is the very gruesome biography of Joseph Lister – the father of modern antiseptics.

Often the Victorian era is idealised, romanticised, the reality is that you were going to die, very young, of something that was most certainly preventable. It says something when surgery in your dining room was less likely to kill you than surgery in a hospital. In a hospital surgeons would wear the same clothes between patients, use instruments covered in blood, guts and gore from the previous surgery, they didn’t even think twice about using instruments they’d just used on an autopsy on a (still) living patient. Cross contamination and sepsis were significant causes of death – and leeches couldn’t fix everything. Surgery in the 1800s was a matter of speed – there wasn’t anaesthetic and things had to be done quickly to avoid excess blood loss and trauma, and of those who survived the majority then died because of post-operative infection.

Lister, as a young surgeon, saw a problem and decided he wanted to do something to try and fix it. His antiseptic theories were groundbreaking, and most certainly unpopular. He spent is career building the argument, and in the end even with evidence people were still against him. The backlash he faced seems ridiculous now – in a society which is so germ averse, with antibacterial hand wash on every wall in a hospital and most of us carrying it in a bag! But just 150 years ago it was reality, and he saved so many lives because he persevered.

Medical history isn’t something I can honestly say I’ve read about, obviously I know it’s there, and I knew of Joseph Lister and his importance but actually picking a book up about it is not something I would have done without the Wellcome Prize longlist. Ultimately I’m really glad I read this – Joseph Lister was an incredible man on a mission, and has changed all of our lives because of it.

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is a compelling story teller, that much is sure. This could have been a very, very dry book but it wasn’t and I think it’s because it was quite a personable account – rather than reading like a textbook it just reads like a biography but at the same time I feel I learnt a lot from it. I’ll definitely be recommending this to my stronger-stomached friends!

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

046 - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rating – 5*

Putting my feelings for this book in to coherent sentences is going to be hard. This is a book I’ve been aware of long before I started my degree, and I really wish I had read it prior to university because it would have given me a different aproach to my day to day lab work. I knew her name, which is more than many scientists did, but when dealing with cell cultures it’s sometimes difficult to remember that every cell came from somewhere, and in many cases came from someone. More importantly, the immortal cell line – HeLa – which came from her tumor has changed the lives of everyone alive today. Yet, she was unknown until 20 years after the biopsy was taken, and she doesn’t get thanks for that.

This book was so much more than a book about cells – I’ve read many of books about cells and this wasn’t comparable to any of them. This is the biography of a woman science – the world – needs to remember the name of. Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of 5 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and unknown to her or her family the doctor took two biopsies that day. One would diagnose her with cancer, the other would go on to be the most prolific cell line in history. HeLa cells have gone on to change the world – they were instrumental in the development of medical treatments such as the polio vaccine, they’ve been in to space, they’ve changed the face of science and medicine to what we now know it. But this is a book about the woman behind that immortal cell line; the mother, sister, wife, cousin, and friend. It’s a book full of compassion and it made me cry because I know just how instrumental this woman has been in my life.

The story in these pages is not an easy read. It covers race, religion, discrimination of many kinds, the American medical system (which to this day horrifies me), medical ethics, rights to our bodies and tissues – what it covers seems to be endless. There is also a brief touch on mental health in the book, due to one of Henrietta’s children – Elsie – suffering from epilepsy and being institutionalised at a very young age. While we never know the exact details of how the poor girl was treated while in the ‘care’ home, the general opinion on what was likely to have occurred sent a shiver down my spine. But for me, the thing which gave me most hope, was that education is power. Deborah, one of Henrietta’s children, armed with a dictionary and google, was determined to learn as much about her mother and what her cells have done for the world as possible.

Rebecca Skloot is a fantastic journalist who became fascinated by the story of the woman behind the cells when she was in college. She knew from a reasonably early point in her career that this was the book she wanted to write because the more she understood, the more she wanted to know about Henrietta. She handles this book with extreme grace and compassion, with very much overdue respect and gratitude to the family in every page of this book.

Honestly, this book is one that will stay with me for a lifetime. It’s not your typical, stodgy non-fiction as it’s more about the woman, not the science. It’s approachable and informative, and a very much deserved winner of the Wellcome Prize in 2010. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I leave you on this note:- HeLa cells, which were taken from the tumour on Henrietta Lacks’ cervix – were found to contain human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18). HPV-18 is one of the strains of HPV which can cause cervical cancer, and in 2006 the cell line from Henrietta was used to develop a vaccine which is now given to all female school children in the UK (and many countries worldwide) which has, on estimate, cut cervical cancer cases by two thirds in 10 years. It’s by no means a cure, but it reduces the risk. That, for me, is something I feel both Henrietta (and her family) should be very proud of.