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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Hardcover]

Rebecca Skloot
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 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

"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time…'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'…floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' and 'The Andromeda Strain.'…it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Skloot's vivid account begins with the life of Henrietta Lacks, who comes fully alive on the page…'Immortal Life' reads like a novel."--Eric Roston, The Washington Post

“Gripping…by turns heartbreaking, funny and unsettling…raises troubling questions about the way Mrs. Lacks and her family were treated by researchers and about whether patients should control or have financial claims on tissue removed from their bodies.”—Denise Grady, New York Times

“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.”—Douglas Whynott, The Boston Globe

"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" —Colette Bancroft, St. Petersburg Times

“The history of HeLa is a rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender, medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer than can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling. Rebecca Skloot has crafted a unique piece of science journalism that is impossible to put down—or to forget.”—Seed magazine


“No one can say exactly where Henrietta Lacks is buried: during the many years Rebecca Skloot spent working on this book, even Lacks’s hometown of Clover, Virginia, disappeared. But that did not stop Skloot in her quest to exhume, and resurrect, the story of her heroine and her family. What this important, invigorating book lays bare is how easily science can do wrong, especially to the poor. The issues evoked here are giant: who owns our bodies, the use and misuse of medical authority, the unhealed wounds of slavery ... and Skloot, with clarity and compassion, helps us take the long view. 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

“It’s extremely rare when a reporter’s passion finds its match in a story. Rarer still when the people in that story courageously join that reporter in the search for what we most need to know about ourselves. When this occurs with a moral journalist who is also a true writer, a human being with a heart capable of holding all of life’s damage and joy, the stars have aligned. This is an extraordinary gift of a book, beautiful and devastating—a work of outstanding literary reportage. Read it! It’s the best you will find in many many years.”—ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC, author of Random Family
  
 ”The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings to mind the work of Philip K. Dick and Edgar Allan Poe. But this tale is true. Rebecca Skloot explores the racism and greed, the idealism and faith in science that helped to save thousands of lives but nearly destroyed a family. This is an extraordinary book, haunting and beautifully told.”—ERIC SCHLOSSER, author of Fast Food Nation 
 
“Skloot’s book is wonderful -- deeply felt, gracefully written, sharply reported. It is a story about science but, much more, about life.”—SUSAN ORLEAN, author of The Orchid Thief
  
“This is a science biography like the world has never seen. What if one of the great American women of modern science and medicine--whose contribution underlay historic discoveries in genetics, the treatment and prevention of disease, reproduction, and the unraveling of the human genome--was a self-effacing African-American tobacco farmer from the Deep South? A devoted mother of five who was escorted briskly to the Jim Crow section of Johns Hopkins for her cancer treatments? What if the untold millions of scientists, doctors, and patients enriched and healed by her gift never, to this day, knew her name? What if her contribution was made without her knowledge or permission? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Henrietta Lacks. Chances are, at the level of your DNA, your inoculations, your physical health and microscopic well-being, you’ve already been introduced.”--MELISSA FAY GREENE, author of Praying for Sheetrock and There Is No Me Without You
  
“Heartbreaking and powerful, unsettling yet compelling, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a richly textured story of the hidden costs of scientific progress. Deftly weaving together history, journalism and biography, Rebecca Skloot?s sensitive account tells of the enduring, deeply personal sacrifice of this African American woman and her family and, at long last, restores a human face to the cell line that propelled 20th century biomedicine. A stunning illustration of how race, gender and disease intersect to produce a unique form of social vulnerability, this is a poignant, necessary and brilliant book.”—ALONDRA NELSON, Columbia University; editor of Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life
  
“Rebecca Skloot has written a marvelous book so original that it defies easy description. She traces the surreal journey that a tiny patch of cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks’s body took to the forefront of science. At the same time, she tells the story of Lacks and her family—wrestling the storms of the late twentieth century in America—with rich detail, wit, and humanity. The more we read, the more we realize that these are not two separate stories, but one tapestry. It’s part The Wire, part The Lives of the Cell, and all fascinating.”—CARL ZIMMER, author of Microcosm
  
“If virtues could be cultured like cells, Rebecca Skloot’s would be a fine place to start¾a rare combination of compassion, courage, wisdom, and intelligence. This book is extraordinary. As a writer and a human being, Skloot stands way, way out there ahead of the pack.”—MARY ROACH, author of Stiff and Bonk
  
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the reader on a remarkable journey—compassionate, troubling, funny, smart—and irresistible. Along the way, Rebecca Skloot will change the way you see medical science and lead you to wonder who we should value more—the researcher or the research subject? Ethically fascinating and completely engaging—I couldn’t recommend it more.”—DEBORAH BLUM, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Monkey Wars and the Helen Firstbrook Franklin professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
 
 “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
  
“Rebecca Skloot’s steadfast commitment to illuminating the life and contribution of Henrietta Lacks, one of the many vulnerable subjects used for scientific advancement, and the subsequent impact on her family is a testament to the power of solid investigative journalism. Her deeply compelling account of one family’s long and troubled relationship with America’s vast medical-industrial complex is sure to become a cherished classic.”—ALLEN M. HORNBLUM, author of Acres of Skin and Sentenced to Science
 
“Writing with a novelist’s artistry, a biologist’s expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, 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)
 
“Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about ‘faith, science, journalism, and grace.’…Recalls Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family…A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred review)
 
 
 

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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3 of 3 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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3 of 3 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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3 of 3 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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2 of 2 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 Four Stars
Not finished.
Published 2 days ago by Marianne Povey
4.0 out of 5 stars I would recommend this book
A friend recommended this book and I don't regret buying it. I couldn't put the book down. I read it at home, at work(don't tell ;-)), before bed... Read more
Published 16 days ago by Coleen
5.0 out of 5 stars amazing
I just started reading this book but I can't put it down, really well put together and some of the facts in this book are shocking, what an interesting and inspiring story! Read more
Published 2 months ago by Sarah
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
An eye opener and well written. Sometimes too much repeated detail. Probably could have been cut by a quarter of the size.
Published 4 months ago by Creative Carole
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 9 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 10 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 13 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 14 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 14 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 15 months ago by S.D.Rossington
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