A book club for history lovers

Happy Book Lovers' Day! Where history, collections, and good books meet, you'll find our staff book club. Here's what they've been reading and how these books relate to the museum's collections.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Our first read chronicled the story of Henrietta Lacks and how her cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, were adapted after her death into one of the most powerful tools for laboratory science of the 20th century. It's a great mixture of science, history and bioethics, as it tells not only the story of scientific research that relied on HeLa (for HEnrietta LAcks) cells, but also explores the impacts her death and the use of her cells had on her family. HeLa cells continue to bring up ethical issues for medical researchers, even to this day. Here at the museum, we collected a sample of the cells years ago for their historic importance both as a scientific breakthrough and a powerful story of questionable medical ethics.  

Curator Ann Seeger brought some of the actual cells, contained in a flask that was used at the National Cancer Institute, to our meeting—our first inkling that this was no ordinary book club!

HeLa cells in double-necked shaker flask
HeLa cells in double-necked shaker flask

My Beloved World by Sonya Sotomayor

Next on our list was this memoir of the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Maria Sotomayor. It gave us insight into the family dynamics that shaped her childhood in the Bronx, New York City, and her educational and career achievements that led to her nomination in May 2009. Her lifelong struggle with diabetes, a disease that was much more difficult to manage when she was diagnosed as a child in the 1960s, was an interesting thread throughout the book.

At one point, Sotomayor describes nearly passing out from low blood sugar at her 37th birthday party, mentioning it would have been the first occasion for anyone to see the card explaining her condition she had kept with her since being diagnosed as a small child.

(Left) Insulin, 1962, likely similar to the kind Sotomayor would have used as a child. (Right) I Am a Diabetic wallet card, 1972, similar to the one described in the book.
Left: Insulin, 1962, likely similar to the kind Sotomayor would have used as a child. Right: "I Am a Diabetic" wallet card, 1972, similar to the one described in the book.

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle

Our third selection tells the story of the events leading up to and following the enormous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, and explores the impact the event had on social and political movements in early 20th century America. I particularly enjoyed how the author presents the stories and points of view of a variety of classes, genders, and ethnicities.

One of our members mentioned that when talking about the fire, it's common to hear the question, "What the heck is a shirtwaist?" (See below!) A few weeks later, I couldn't help but think of the Triangle fire after finding this little notebook in the celluloid collection.

(Left) Shirtwaist, Fisk Clark & Flagg New York label, 1901-1911. (Right) Notebook advertising the United Garment Workers of America, 1908.
Left: Shirtwaist, Fisk Clark & Flagg New York label, 1901-1911. Right: Notebook advertising the United Garment Workers of America, 1908.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Our first fiction read was this historical novel, based on the life of Clara Driscoll who designed stained glass masterpieces and managed the department of women artists at Louis Comfort Tiffany's Tiffany Glass Company. We were lucky enough to have the author, Susan Vreeland, call into our meeting and loved hearing details about her research on the real life Clara and the New York Historical Society exhibition that inspired the novel.

Curator Bonnie Campbell Lilienfeld brought out a few of our Tiffany glass and ceramic treasures from the collections for the book club to enjoy
Curator Bonnie Campbell Lilienfeld brought out a few of our Tiffany glass and ceramic treasures from the collections for the book club to enjoy
Bonnie shows some of our members a glass vase with an underwater design that was hand-picked by Mr. Tiffany to be sent to the Smithsonian
Bonnie shows some of our members a glass vase with an underwater design that was hand-picked by Mr. Tiffany to be sent to the Smithsonian
Tiffany lamp and shade detail, 1889-1920
Tiffany lamp and shade detail, 1889-1920

History lovers, what book do you recommend we read next? Let us know! We’re always looking for suggestions for our next read. If you’d like to see if a book you’ve read relates to Smithsonian collections, searching is easy

Mallory Warner is a project assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science. She has also blogged about the story behind human growth hormone

Posted at 6:00 am EDT in From the Collections,Musings,Women's History