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Wellcome Book Prize 2010: And the winner is….

10 Nov, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book coverI’m no expert (not yet!)…but – clearly – picking winners isn’t easy. For the second time in a row, the judges tasked with choosing the Wellcome Trust Book Prize winner had a really…no, really…a really hard time making that final choice.

This year it was Clive Anderson’s turn to chair the enclave and to steer his fellow judges (Maggie Gee, Alice Roberts, AC Grayling and Michael Neve) towards a decision. Like last year, after hours of negotiating impasses, a wearied bunch of judges asked us if a joint prize might be on the cards. Like last year, we insisted they crown just one winner.

And slowly, a winner did crystallise. As the smoke emerged, Clive announced that the 2010 winner was Rebecca Skloot’s stunning book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s a great choice, and in many ways, it perfectly encapsulates what the Wellcome Trust Book Prize is about: a fantastic narrative, beautifully written, that uses medicine as a lens through which to examine (and question) science, society, and the self.

The book is built on the story of a scientific discovery that has had a far-reaching, game-changing effect on medical research: the discovery of the HeLa cell-line. Yet Skloot’s book isn’t a sanitized tour of whiggish progressivism. Yes, you may well find yourself amazed as your guide tells you about these ubiquitous cells that have been everywhere and done everything (or rather, they have had everything done to them). But you’ll also be lead through a labyrinth of racism, social inequality, scientific prejudice and general incompetence. At every twist, Skloot reminds us of the collateral damage that scientific progress can inflict.

In the end, I think Skloot’s greatest achievement is that she embraces complexity. That is why she manages not only to rescue Henrietta Lacks from silence and obscurity, but also helps us understand the disenfranchisement, fear and desperation of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, not to mention the anger of two generations of Lackses who still live in poverty in Baltimore, drifting in and out of healthcare.

Of course, you may not agree. Maybe you thought (like many of those who took our online poll) that Tim Parks’s Teach Us to Sit Still was a better read, and a more deserving winner? Or Gareth Williams’s Angel of Death? If so, put a voice to your vote! Tell us in the comments what you think of the judges’ decision, the book that they chose or the books they didn’t.

Nils Fietje, Medical Humanities Adviser, Wellcome Trust

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