Primum non nocere ("First do no harm")



I learned about a woman named Henrietta Lacks from reading Rebecca Skloot’s best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which came out in 2010. Lacks’s cervical cells, harvested at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s without her knowledge or her consent, became the foundation of an incredibly rich line of rapidly reproducing and hardy cells (called HeLa cells). Researchers the world over have used—are using—HeLa cells for a wide range of medical research. Just this year, the National Institutes of Health and the Lacks family have come to an agreement that offers the family some control over how Lacks’s genome (sequenced from the HeLa cells) is used.  Sixty-two years late(r).


Lacks’s story is far from uncommon. In a new TFCB fall release, entitled For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation, Vicki Oransky Wittenstein chronicles Lacks’s experience, along with a wide range of related instances of gross ethical and moral violations in the pursuit of medical knowledge. Starting with an overview of basic medical ethics, Vicki goes on to meticulously document human medical experimentation across the centuries, including Jenner’s early smallpox experiments, the horrors of experimentation on American slaves, the concentration camp atrocities of Dr. Josef Mengele, the radiation experiments of the World War II and Cold War eras, and the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century drug trials and experiments with human biological samples. As part of her rich back matter, Vicki puts forth a series of insightful questions for readers to explore and debate for further analytical engagement with the topic. The book covers emotionally tough material in objective, compelling terms that help readers grapple with the complex relationship between medical science, corporate profits, and the pursuit to respect and protect human dignity.

About her book, Vicki says:

Before I began my research, I had no idea that so many scientists and doctors experimented freely on marginalized peoples, like orphans, the mentally ill, and prisoners, without their voluntary consent.  The sheer quantity of experiments where individuals were injured or put at high risk shocked me.  Those like Eva Mozes Kor who suffered at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele and other Nazi doctors in Auschwitz moved me to tears.  The stories of those who suffered needed to be heard, and they inspired me to write this book.

Without a doubt, human medical experimentation is critical to the advancement of new medical treatments and cures.  Although there are laws in place that protect subjects, they can be difficult to implement.  How can we conduct experiments without losing our moral footing?  How do we balance the risks to the individual versus society’s need for new treatments and cures?  These questions continue to intrigue me, particularly now with the rapid advancements in stem cell research and the sequencing of the human genome.

Young people today will be the next generation of leaders in science, health care, government, and law.  They will be continually bombarded with ethical and moral dilemmas that will challenge their core beliefs.  I hope this book will help them question what is right and wrong, and inspire them to never forsake their principles in the name of science. 

School Library Journal says, “This title is an important addition to public and school libraries.” I think you’ll agree.


Check in again next month for more exciting new books from TFCB!