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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksby Rebecca Skloot
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 atom bomb’s effects; 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?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
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.
Table of Contents
Pt. 1. Life. 1. The exam ... 1951 — 2. Clover ... 1920-1942 — 3. Diagnosis and treatment ... 1951 — 4. The birth of HeLa ... 1951 — 5. "Blackness be spreadin all inside" ... 1951 — 6. "Lady's on the phone" ... 1999 — 7. The death and life of cell culture ... 1951 — 8. "A miserable specimen" ... 1951 — 9. Turner station ... 1999 — 10. The other side of the tracks ... 1999 — 11. "The devil of pain itself" ... 1951 — Pt. 2. Death. 12. The storm ... 1951 — 13. The HeLa factory ... 1951-1953 — 14. Helen Lane ... 1953-1954 — 15. "Too Young to remember" ... 1951-1965 — 16. "Spending eternity in the same place" ... 1999 — 17. Illegal, immoral, and deplorable ... 1954-1966 — 18. "Strangest hybrid" ... 1960-1966 — 19. "The most critical time on this earth is now" ... 1966-1973 — 20. The HeLa bomb ... 1966 — 21. Night doctors ... 2000 — 22. "The fame she so richly deserves" ... 1970-1973 — Pt. 3. Immortality. 23. "It's alive" ... 1973-1974 — 24. "Least they can do" ... 1975 — 25. "Who told you you could sell my spleen?" ... 1976-1988 — 26. Breach of privacy ... 1980-1985 — 27. The secret of immortality ... 1984-1995 — 28. After London ... 1996-1999 — 29. A village of Henriettas ... 2000 — 30. Zakariyya ... 2000 — 31. Hela, goddess of death ... 2000-2001 — 32. "All that's my mother" ... 2001 — 33. The hospital for the negro insane ... 2001 — 34. the medical records ... 2001 — 35. Soul cleansing ... 2001 — 36. Heavenly bodies ... 2001 — 37. "Nothing to be scared about" ... 2001 — 38. the long road to clover ... 2009 — Where they are now.
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