The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book - 2010
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Now a major motion picture from HBO® starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

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 vacci≠ 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.
Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, 2010, c2009.
ISBN: 9781400052172
Characteristics: x, 369 p., [8] p. of plates :,ill. (some col.), ports. (some col.) ;,25 cm.


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Apr 18, 2019

One never knows how your life (or body) will impact generations to come. This is a story which plunges the reader right into an ethical question. Perhaps because I don’t lack for money, I sympathized with Lacks family but was so impressed with how research was made possible by her cancerous cells. At the same time, if a company is making money from her cells, shouldn’t the family be able to reap some of the benefits as well.

Feb 19, 2019

A book recommended for the nonfiction buff. This is a poignant story about a brave lady whose demise 70 years ago still has an impact on the health & welfare of everyone to this day. Henrietta Lacks’ enduring cancer cells have resulted in outstanding breakthroughs in medical research over the years.
It would have been kind & moral for Henrietta's family to have benefited from her unique biological input which has had such positive repercussions in medicine to this very day. I am sure that is what Henrietta would have wished as her last words were in regard to the care & welfare of her young children once she was gone.

bibliosopher Feb 19, 2019

A great book club discussion book. Henrietta Lacks went to seek help from doctors, and without her knowledge and content, her unique and prolific cells were shared with the medical community after her death. Journalist Skloot took a look into the past, into the “colored” ward that harvested her cells, and into her family, who had no idea of the immortality of her cells and their medical promise.

Feb 12, 2019

This was an interesting read about rarely discussed topic. HeLa cells have made a huge impact on modern medicine. This is the story of not only the cells, but of the lady they orginated from, Henrietta Lacks, and her family. I recommend it!

Dec 29, 2018

This is one of the most interesting and compelling stories I have ever read. I had no idea that this was a truth that needed to be told. Absolutely fascinating.

JCLAmyF Dec 27, 2018

Compellingly written! Skloot alternates between telling her own personal story about researching this book and meeting the Lacks family, and chapters that follow the scientific story of the HeLa cells and their history. That alternating format makes for a great read for an ADD-type reader like myself!

OPL_EllyR Dec 02, 2018

The Immortal Life is a book that speaks to the past of medical research in a way that explains so many prevalent ethical concerns in the field, even today. Skloot provides an impressively balanced narrative detailing her family's research into and conflict with their mother's unknowing and nonconsensual contribution to science, and researchers' narratives about the state of patient consent policy at the time, as well as the discoveries made possible through the HeLa cells. She also covers some more current issues with the advances made in genetic technology. This read is immaculately researched, and truly an evergreen text for anyone curious about ethics and medical history, genetic research, and racism, and is varied and well-written enough to interest those who might not otherwise pick such a book.

IndyPL_SteveB Nov 30, 2018

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American mother from Virginia, died of cervical cancer. An unremarkable occurrence, perhaps, except that before her death, doctors took samples of her tumor and made them the first successful culture of human cells, a line of cells now known as HeLa. Her cells have continued to reproduce ever since, in the number of uncounted billions, in research labs all over the world. The research done on these cells have saved millions of lives – yet her family did not find out about these cells for 20 years and never received a dollar of compensation.

In a remarkably moving account, the author contrasts the amazing success of the HeLa cells with the decades-long agony of the Lacks family. The author forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about the nature of medical research and who owns our cells and DNA. But she also explores the very human story of an impoverished, uneducated family thrust into the limelight, not knowing whom to trust. The author became an unofficial member of the Lacks family in the years she spent developing this story. Winner of several awards as best science or medical book of the year and an amazing combination of science and personal history.

I finally had a chance read it and I could not put it down. Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern US tobacco farmer who had her cancerous cells taken without her knowledge in 1951. Those cells – called HeLa – became the first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, and they are alive today. They helped develop the polio vaccine, assist research into cancer and viruses, and develop in-vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. This story – by Rebecca Skloot – is about the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles around who owns the stuff we are made of. It jumps around in time but it is easy to follow. I found it quite fascinating. (submitted by DS)

Aug 07, 2018

I read the book- I thought it will be boring but not at all- it read like a fiction! full of facts and information but still interesting and kept me glued until the end.
Plus I watched the movie and felt like a confirmation from the book. It helped that I understood the characters and circumstances better. I read critical reviews that the movie "glamorized and hollywoodized" the book but I think it became more accessible and approachable to this piece of medical history.

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May 03, 2019

katboxjanitor thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over

Mar 11, 2016

CarolJ33 thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over


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Jun 17, 2015

True story of stolen body pieces of Everywoman Henrietta Lacks. Story readable despite presence of a great deal of science. Adult children search for their mother over years bearing up remarkably in face of medical-science establishment. Exceptional. Highly recommended.

Algonquin_Lisa Feb 24, 2011

A black woman's self-perpetuating cancer cells live past her own shortened life, providing doctors and scientists with an unparalleled opportunity to do nearly unlimited research. Her family, however, was unaware her cells were ever collected. In this book author Rebecca Skloot takes them on a journey to learn the extent to which their mother's cells changed the face of cancer research forever. Fascinating, and possibly the best work of nonfiction I've ever read.


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BookWormChelly Jul 08, 2013

“But I tell you one thing, I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you while you stay the same, and that's just sad.”

mrsgail5756 Apr 03, 2013

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” -George Washington


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