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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Audiobook, Unabridged] [Audio CD]

Rebecca Skloot , Cassandra Campbell , Bahni Turpin
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 2 2010
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.

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Review

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Entertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of the Year
New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite
American Library Association Notable Book
People Top Ten Book of the Year
Washington Post Book World Top Ten Book of the Year
Salon.com Best Book of the Year
USA Today Ten Books We Loved Reading
O, The Oprah Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year
National Public Radio Best of the Bestsellers
Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year  
Financial Times Nonfiction Favorite
Los Angeles Times Critics’ Pick
Bloomberg Top Nonfiction
New York magazine Top Ten Book of the Year
Slate.com Favorite Book of the Year
TheRoot.com Top Ten Book of the Year
Discover magazine 2010 Must-Read
Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year
Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
U.S. News & World Report Top Debate-Worthy Book
Booklist Top of the List—Best Nonfiction Book
New York Times/Science Bestseller list 

“I could not put the book down . . . The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful.” —New York Times Book Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.” —Wired.com

A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.”
—Washington Post

Riveting...a tour-de-force debut.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine . . . The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds.”
Nature

“A jaw-dropping true story . . . raises urgent questions about race and research for ‘progress’ . . . an inspiring tale for all ages.” Essence

“This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology.” The New Yorker
  
“Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easily
explained away.” SF Weekly
 
“One of the great medical biographies of our time.” The Financial Times
  
“Like any good scientific research, this beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched book raises nearly as many questions as it answers . . . In a time when it’s fashionable to demonize scientists, Skloot generously does not pin any sins to the lapels of the researchers. She just lets them be human . . . [and] challenges much of what we believe of ethics, tissue ownership, and humanity.” Science
  
“Indelible . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism.” —Laura Miller, Salon.com
  
“No dead woman has done more for the living . . . a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.” —Hilary Mantel, The Guardian (U.K.)
 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do.” Dallas Morning News

“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.” Boston Globe

 “This remarkable story of how the cervical cells of the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, enabled subsequent discoveries from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization is extraordinary in itself; the added portrayal of Lacks's full life makes the story come alive with her humanity and the palpable relationship between race, science, and exploitation." —Paula J. Giddings, author of Ida, A Sword Among Lions; Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor, Afro-American Studies, Smith College
  
“Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks.” Newsweek

“Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Skloot] is determined not to. This biography ensures that she will never again be reduced to cells in a petri dish: she will always be Henrietta as well as HeLa.” The Telegraph (U.K.)
 
“Brings the Lacks family alive . . . gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing.” Baltimore Sun

“A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells.” Los Angeles Times
 
“In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life.”
Mother Jones
 
“More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write . . . Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating . . . a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives . . . packed with memorable characters.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Ten Book of 2010
 
“Astonishing . . .No matter how much you may know about basic biology, you will be amazed by this book." The Journal of Clinical Investigation

“Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly . . . A riveting narrative that is wholly original.” —THEROOT.COM
 
“Moving . . .” The Economist
 
“Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in U.S. medical research.” TIME
 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine.” Vogue
 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.”
National Public Radio
 
“An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells.” Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“As much an act of justice as one of journalism.” Seattle Times
 
“A stunning book . . . surely the definitive work on the subject.” The Independent(U.K.)
 
“Graceful . . . I can’t think of a better way to capture the corrosive effects of ethical transgressions in medical research. It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully rendered.” The Lancet
 
“Read this . . . By letting the Lackses be people, and by putting them in the center of the history, Skloot turns just another tale about the march of progress into a complicated portrait of the interaction between science and human lives. —BOINGBOING.NET
 
“[A] remarkable and moving book . . . a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells.” The Times (U.K.)
 
“I can’t imagine a better tale. A detective story that’s at once mythically large and painfully intimate. I highly recommend this book.” —Jad Abumrad, Radiolab
 
“Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.” The Globe and Mail (Canada)
 
“A rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender,medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer that can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling.” Seed
 
“Powerful story . . . I feel moved even to say on behalf of the thousands of anonymous black men and women who’ve been experimented on for medical purposes, thank you. Thank you for writing this important book.” —Kali-AhsetAmen, Radio Diaspora
 
“Skloot has written an important work of immersive nonfiction that brings not only the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa once more into line, but also catharsis to a family in sore need of it.” The Times Literary Suppleme...

About the Author

Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many others. She is coeditor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She was named one of five surprising leaders of 2010 by the Washington Post. Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen as a best book of 2010 by more than sixty media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, People, and the New York TimesIt is being translated into more than twenty-five languages, adapted into a young reader edition, and being made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She lives in Chicago. For more information, visit her website at RebeccaSkloot.com, where you’ll find links to follow her on Twitter and Facebook. 


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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars never look at HeLa cells the same way again Nov. 16 2010
Format:Hardcover
I'm a scientist and have used HeLa cells for many years, with only a vague idea of where they had come from. This terrific book brings a human side to the early days of cell culture and also a fascinating insight into some more modern problems (cell-line contamination) as well as to historical ones (racism and institutionalization), both of which we hope are going away... The book is well-written and obviously a labor of love for both its author and Ms. Lacks's relatives. Thank you for writing this! I'll recommend it to everyone I know.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
I picked up this book expecting an interesting story about the origin of the HeLa cell line. This the book delivered. However, be aware that the scientific side of the HeLa cells are only very generally explained. This book is not for someone looking to read about cell biology, but rather someone who is interested in:

a) The evolution of ethics in medical research
b) The human faces behind the HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks and her progeny

If you find yourself interested in any of the above, then this book is for you.

This is definitely a pop-science book, rather than a scientific treatise and so you should approach it as such.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I had a difficult time putting this book down; it is fascinating, thrilling, intellectually stimulating yet deeply moving as well. Thank goodness Ms. Skloot investigated and recorded the story of Henrietta Lacks; had more time passed, the information and people that assisted in this wonderful investigation into Ms. Lacks' life would have been gone, the story behind this amazing medical phenomenon, lost. It makes one wonder what other stories about interesting, important yet unsung heroes can no longer be written because of the passage of time and the death of people who knew them. I am thankful that Ms. Skloot had the interest and drive to see this investigation through, along with the Lacks family.

The book was a combination of science thriller, mystery novel, and wonderful human-interest story. There are not many times after reading a book that I've felt I've learned about something truly significant, yet I felt this way after reading The Immortal Life of Henrieta Lacks.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Long overdue biography Dec 31 2011
Format:Paperback
This is a long overdue biography of a woman who unwittingly made a tremendous contribution to medical research. In the days when ethics approval was not required for obtaining patient samples for research purposes, cervical cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks (so-called HeLa cells) were carefully excised and placed into culture media in an attempt to grow these ex vivo. The researchers of the day could not anticipate that her cells would grow vigorously, and continue to grow to this day in numerous labs around the world. At that time, the successful culturing of cells was considered a fantasy because so many cells failed to thrive in culture media, whether obtained from normal or cancerous tissues. The rapidly growing immortalized cells from Henrietta Lacks pre-empted ethical considerations for the patient and her family, since it was not expected that they would actually succeed in cell culture. Moreover, it was not possible to anticipate the enormous wealth of knowledge regarding protein and DNA structure and function that these cells provided. The events that unfolded following the exceptional ability to culture HeLa cells led to unforeseen consequences for the Lacks family as well as numerous researchers and clinicians whose careers were staked on these cells. Rebecca Skloot provides a compassionate and meticulous insight into the Lacks family and their reaction to the generation of HeLa cells. This is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand processes underlying medical ethics and how research has relied on human samples in the past century. It is also essential reading for researchers who have handled HeLa cells (including this reviewer).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buying it for friends Nov. 23 2011
By MDH
Format:Paperback
Just adding to everyone else's accolades. Rebecca Skloot writes with sensitivity and humour. Distressing, fascinating, and sometimes hilarious. I've already bought copies to give as gifts.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes you think Oct. 8 2011
Format:Paperback
As an artsy, non-science person, I'd never heard of HeLa cells or Henrietta Lacks. And, early into this book, it became clear to me that even the scientists who have been using HeLa cells for research for decades knew little about the woman from whom the cells came. Rebecca Skloot tells the Lacks family story with sensitivity and honesty while at the same time explaining cell science in understandable, lay terms. No small feat. But the most powerful and important questions this story raises are ethical. And they're questions for which we still don't have answers.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Sept. 3 2011
By Pauline
Format:Paperback
This is a great read, especially if you are keen on biological sciences. I have a science degree and learned all about cells, DNA, cancer and never learned about how we got the cells to study to find out this information. I have never even considered the people behind the cells I studied in university. This book was an eye opener and it is well written and well paced that it keeps your attention. Definitely a learning experience and a book that makes you think about science and also about the field of medicine.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What does this book not have? Nov. 14 2013
Format:Paperback
Wow! This is the best book I've read this year. It has something for everyone. Ms. Skloot writes so well that the reader lives in her story. The themes range from bio-medical ethics, to racism and poverty, to questions about the responsibility of the medical community toward patients who lack the education necessary to understand their condition and finally to what claims we ought to have toward our own tissues and who can profit from them. This is a book rich in thought-provoking questions. At another level it is also the story of an authour's relationship with a family devastated by the untimely death of their mother and the family's quest to understand who she was and who she continues to be.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The incredible progress of objective science gets lost when its impact...
Henrietta died of cervical cancer probably a result of contracting the HPV virus that causes genital warts. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Len
2.0 out of 5 stars The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
I read this book completely, but at the end of the day, found it to have been a big waste of time.
Published 5 months ago by Robert Kipling
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting story
I may have made a mistake in ordering but I don't think I did. The book came in large print which I disliked. Apart from that it was pretty interesting.
Published 9 months ago by lavoynne jackson
5.0 out of 5 stars Shocking..why don't we all know this story?
This book was a wonderful surprise. I read it as one of my book club choices. The book is compelling non-fiction, and while the central theme is scientific in nature, the real... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Diana E. Young
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and disturbing
The story of Henrietta Lacks and her life is very interesting and shows a real slice in time of how society treated non-whites. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars It was interesting & frightening - referring to just what the medical...
THe book was well written but a bit long.
Would recommend it to friends. Have actually talked about it with quite a few people
My book club read it
Published 10 months ago by S.D.Rossington
5.0 out of 5 stars The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
I found this book fascinating, the information in re. to human cells, their culture and research methods, it was all new to me. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Rosemarie
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating scientific documentary
The author did a great job documenting this fascinating story. I learned a great deal more about the life of a poor black person in history and how she was exploited by society. Read more
Published 12 months ago by oscardoc
5.0 out of 5 stars a great lesson in history
It was a very informative and interesting book. Parts were heartbreaking but true to what was happening at that time in history. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Donna Campbell
4.0 out of 5 stars Oustanding discovery of a long time hidden fact, worth reading
This book is absorbing, page-turnering, interesting and very well written. The author seems to get curious about the HeLa cell from her early age, middle or high school days. Read more
Published 22 months ago by SEOUROCK
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