I had hoped this would be a comparable read to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, which are two of my absolute favorite books and were also among the first to turn me on to medical-themed literature. Instead, I found myself skimming through the book’s dense scientific and historical information: like Mukherjee’s other book, The Gene, which made last year’s Wellcome shortlist, The Vaccine Race is overstuffed with a mixture of the familiar (for me, at least – genetics), the seemingly irrelevant (cell culture techniques and scientific nomenclature), and the truly interesting (questions of medical ethics).
The unlikely protagonist of this story is Leonard Hayflick, a single-minded and resourceful researcher who is still alive in his late eighties and assented to dozens of interviews and many more e-mails as Wadman put this book together. While in high school Hayflick made a chemistry lab in his basement, and in college he built his father a dental lab: that tells you how driven he was. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at the Wistar Institute on its campus. He chiefly investigated whether viruses cause cancer and whether a cell line will be immortal or subject to the normal rules of aging – the Hayflick limit, named after him, is the number of cell divisions possible before a cell line dies out.
Hayflick experimented on his third child’s placenta, but also on aborted fetuses from the university hospital. Replacement fetal cell lines sourced from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden were used to produce the polio, rubella and rabies vaccines. In particular, he relied on the WI-38 line he developed from fetal cells taken from the Swedish “Mrs. X,” who – like Henrietta Lacks’s family – was never compensated; she did not want to be interviewed for or mentioned by name in this book. In the 1970s, with Roe v. Wade in the pipeline, the controversy over using aborted fetal tissue in research heated up*, and Hayflick was somewhat disgraced in the course of a 1976 lawsuit about his right to profit from WI-38.
But that’s not the only dubious ethical situation associated with the development of the twentieth century’s major vaccines: Hayflick’s bosses and associates had also tested early vaccines on intellectually disabled child “volunteers,” while a celebrated cancer researcher had injected cells into dying hospital patients and healthy prisoners in the name of science. Wadman writes, “by the mid-1960s, ordinary people were becoming less willing to give scientists carte blanche to tinker with human beings on a ‘Trust me, I know what’s best for you’ basis.” The question is whether these morally suspect strategies were worth it, given the alternative: rubella in pregnancy causes severe birth defects including blindness, while polio can be crippling and untreated rabies can lead to a slow and painful death.
These ethical questions are certainly worth thinking about, though the abortion history in particular is probably of much more interest to American readers. Here in Europe, abortion is a non-issue, so I don’t expect anyone to get fired up about the history of fetal tissue research. Wadman is certainly a thorough researcher and capable storyteller who doesn’t talk down when explaining science. That said, she might have scaled back on the science a bit to ensure that her work holds broader appeal for lay readers of popular science and medical history.
*More recently, Debi Vinnedge’s Children of God for Life nonprofit has opposed stem cell research despite a Vatican ruling that vaccines developed from fetal tissue are acceptable to use as long as there is no alternative.
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s blog tour review: “The thrillerish feel to big pharma’s politics, and Hayflick’s continual battles for recognition and against anyone who wanted to take his cells away from him made for fascinating reading and added the much-needed human aspect.”
Clare’s review: “The Vaccine Race is a very dense read and some of the lengthier descriptions of things like the finer points of the biotechnology industry went a bit over my head in places. … However, the ethical debates are fascinating and clearly presented.”
Laura’s review: “Wadman writes clearly and compellingly, and given how much material she’s handling, managing to structure the book sensibly is a feat in itself. But I felt that The Vaccine Race was often not one thing or the other.”
Paul’s review: “It is a very important story that Wadman is telling … especially given that we may well be on the dawn of a new era in medicine with the rise of immunity against antibiotics.”
(Also, be sure to stop by Paul’s site today for an exclusive extract from The Vaccine Race as part of the ongoing blog tour.)
My gut feeling: This is the most science-y of the six books on the shortlist. For me that actually works against the broadness and public-facing nature of the prize, as expressed in its brief: “At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”
- Tomorrow I’ll quickly recap my thoughts about the two shortlisted books I read before the shortlist announcement, With the End in Mind and The Butchering Art.
- On Saturday morning I’ll announce our shadow panel winner. That day Clare and I are attending an event featuring five of the shortlisted authors in conversation at the Wellcome Collection in London. I’ll report back about it on Sunday.
- Monday is the awards ceremony, which I’ll be attending for the second year in a row. Expect my write-up of the experience on Tuesday. (In between you get a break from Wellcome Prize stuff with Library Checkout plus some recommendations for May!)
I look forward to your upcoming accounts with much interest.
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Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was so good, wasn’t it? I haven’t read another nonfiction (non memoir) book that had such a strong narrative drive. This particular book does sound interesting but I think I also would get bogged down with the science-y stuff.
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