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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksby Rebecca Skloot
This is an absolutely fascinating account of a line of cells that would proliferate to such a degree that they became immortal. Shaved from a tumor in a poor black woman in the 1950s, cultured without her knowledge, and grown to amazing proportions, HeLa cells would change the face of science and medicine forever. Pivotal in the search for disease obliteration, HeLa would prove invaluable because it simply would not die. Yet, Henrietta Lacks did die, in pain and obscurity, and her family knew nothing of her living cells. Posing some very serious questions ranging from tissue ownership to the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry to the mad rush for the elusive cure for cancer to the impossible cost of health insurance, Skloot has done an admirable job of research here. Ironically, Henrietta's story, if read in a novel, would seem ridiculously fantastical. Yet she lived — and her cells still do. Her story is unforgettable.
"Henrietta Lacks, a poor married, African American mother of five, died at 31 in Baltimore from a vicious form of cervical cancer. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital and after her death there in 1951, researchers harvested some of her tumor cells. This wasn't unusual. Though Lacks consented to treatment, no one asked permission to take her cells; the era's scientists considered it fair to conduct research on patients in public wards since they were being treated for free. What was unusual was what happened next." Valerie Ann Johnson, Ms. Magazine (read the entire Ms. review)
Synopses & Reviews
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta's small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta's family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family — especially Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating read and a ringing success. It is a well-written, carefully-researched, complex saga of medical research, bioethics, and race in America. Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go." The Boston Globe
"Skloot's vivid account begins with the life of Henrietta Lacks, who comes fully alive on the page...Immortal Life reads like a novel." Washington Post
"Riveting...raises important questions about medical ethics...It's an amazing story...Deeply chilling... Whether those uncountable HeLa cells are a miracle or a violation, Skloot tells their fascinating story at last with skill, insight and compassion." St. Petersburg Times
"This is exactly the sort of story that books were made to tell — thorough, detailed, quietly passionate, and full of revelation." Ted Conover, author of Newjack and The Routes of Man
"Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force." Booklist (Starred Review)
Skloot brilliantly weaves together the story of Henrietta Lacks — a woman whose cells have been unwittingly used for scientific research since the 1950s — with the birth of bioethics, and the dark history of experimentation on African Americans.
About the Author
Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Prevention, Glamour, and others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR's Radio Lab and PBS's NOVA scienceNow, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including The Best Food Writing and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is a former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and has taught nonfiction in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh, and science journalism at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She blogs about science, life, and writing at Culture Dish, hosted by Seed magazine. This is her first book. For more information, visit her website at RebeccaSkloot.com.
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