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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Cover

ISBN13: 9781400052189
ISBN10: 1400052181
Condition: Standard
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Awards

Staff Pick

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. 
Recommended by Dianah, Powells.com

Review-A-Day

"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

Publisher Comments:

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?

Review:

"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

Review:

"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

Review:

"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

Review:

"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

Review:

"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)

Synopsis:

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.

Video

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.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 80 comments:

pickfordm, August 6, 2014 (view all comments by pickfordm)
Except when I read for research purposes, I generally settle down with a book of fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, though nonfiction, captured my interest because of the rave reviews and fascinating press it generated, and I quickly picked up a copy of the hardcover edition when the book came out last year. I found that it lived up to all the hype. It's an intelligent, interesting book which reads as fluidly as good fiction, vividly fleshes out real life characters with poignance and compassion, and also provides a clear-eyed description of the socio-economic inequities that plague our system. As for the science, I'm sure most of it is way (way!) over my head. However, unlike some academics, whose writing is indecipherable to all but their fellow experts, Skloot writes clearly and effectively about the importance of Ms. Lacks' immortal cells. Even though we may not "get" all the science, we understand the gist of what the author tells us, and certainly grasp its importance. She also seamlessly weaves into her book the history of medical research, and of issues like informed consent.

I also admire the way that Skloot puts herself, and her journey, into the narrative. Her relationship with Henrietta's troubled but gentle-spirited daughter was, for me, one of the most moving parts of the narrative. At the end of the book, you find that Skloot has established a scholarship fund for Henrietta Lacks' grandchildren, who remain impoverished despite the billions of dollars that have been made from their grandmother's cells. I definitely intend to visit the website and make a contribution, and I'm sure many other readers will do the same after reading this book.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
jenmariestone, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by jenmariestone)
This was a wonderful read. The intersection of family, history, ethics, science, and journalism create an inspiring web that illuminates the intricate connections between ideas and people.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(2 of 4 readers found this comment helpful)
Ann Marie Magill, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by Ann Marie Magill)
Gripping account of a woman whose cancerous cells, without the knowledge of her or her family, were used to profit science and industry. Skloot does her research, gets to know the family intimately, lays out the history of cell research, touches on the history of civil rights and medical exploitation of the poor, all with an expert writer's hand.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
View all 80 comments

Product Details

ISBN:
9781400052189
Author:
Skloot, Rebecca
Publisher:
Broadway
Author:
Anonymous
Subject:
History
Subject:
General
Subject:
Health and Medicine-History of Medicine
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20110308
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
400
Dimensions:
8 x 5.2 x 1 in 0.95 lb

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$12.95 In Stock
Product details 400 pages Broadway - English 9781400052189 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

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. 

"Review A Day" by , "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." (read the entire Ms. review)
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "Skloot's vivid account begins with the life of Henrietta Lacks, who comes fully alive on the page...Immortal Life reads like a novel."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "This is exactly the sort of story that books were made to tell — thorough, detailed, quietly passionate, and full of revelation."
"Review" by , "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."
"Synopsis" by , 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.
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