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All About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Details:
- Amazon Sales Rank: #189 in eBooks
- Published on: 2010-01-28
- Released on: 2010-02-02
- Format: Kindle eBook
- Number of items: 1
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Most helpful customer reviews
1235 of 1288 people found the following review helpful.
Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Henrietta Lacks
By E. Jacobs
Wow. This book should be required reading for scientists and students of life. The true story of Henrietta Lacks and her family has finally been told, beautifully, in this book. The book encompasses science, ethics, and the story of a family who was terribly wronged in the pursuit of scientific research. I could gush about this book for pages but I'll try first to hit the main points of why this book is so remarkable in list form for the sake of brevity:
1. The author clearly developed a strong relationship with the Lacks family, which was absolutely critical to ensuring the story was told accurately and with the respect to Henrietta Lacks that was so deeply deserved.
2. The storytelling is amazingly moving despite the need to convey a lot of scientific information. It reads like fiction.
3. Ms. Skloot's research into the science is impeccable.
4. The book is FAIR. It presents the unvarnished truth, obtained DIRECTLY from as many prinicpal people involved in the story as is humanly possible. It would have been easier to simplify the story into heroes vs. villians, but Ms. Skloot deftly handles all sides of the story.
For some detail: I have worked with HeLa cells in the past, but did not know even the barest information about the story of Henrietta Lacks until a few years ago. It simply was not common knowledge, until a few less ethical folks released her name and medical records to the public. This obviously should not have been done without the express permission of the Lacks family, which Ms. Skloot obtained. In the past, others have not been as ethical. The book covers Ms. Lacks' early life, how her cells came to be harvested, and what happened to both the cells and her family afterward.
The contributions of HeLa cells to science are absolutely staggering and cannot be over-stated. The sections where the science was described were clear and accurate. With the story of Ms. Lacks' family interwoven, this book was fairly close to perfect. I found myself moved to tears several times because of the fate of the Lacks family and Henrietta's daughter's indomitable spirit. I do not think anyone but Ms. Skloot could have written this book. She worked with the family for over a decade in order to get the story right. This was critical, as the family had been wronged too many times in the past.
Thank you for this astounding work of art. I will be donating to the Henrietta Lacks foundation in honor of the entire family, and I hope many others will read the book and be similarly moved.
518 of 553 people found the following review helpful.
Captivating, engrossing, fascinating, heartbreaking, englightening...ALL in one stellar book!
By Living it up
This is hand's down one of the best books I've read in years and I wish I could give it more stars. It is going to be difficult to capture exactly what makes this book so outstanding and so captivating, but I'm going to give it my best shot.
First of all I want to say I am STUNNED that this is the author's first book. She has poured ten years of her heart, soul, mind and her life in general in this book. What she has given birth to in that long period of labor is worthy of her sacrifice and honors Henrietta Lacks and her family.
Other reviews have given the outline of this amazing story. What I want to stress is that Ms. Skloot has navigated the difficult terrain of respecting Mrs. Lacks and her family, while still telling their story in a very intimate, thorough, factual manner. What readers may not know is that the Lacks family isn't just a "subject" that the author researched. This is a real family with real heartaches and real challenges whose lives she entered into for a very long season. The Lacks' family has truly benefitted from the author's involvement in their life and that is something I am very appreciative of. I believe that Ms. Skloot was able to give Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, a real sense of healing, deliverance, peace and identity that she had been searching for her whole life...that story alone would have made the book for me.
It would have been very easy for the author to come across as condescending or patronizing or possibly as being exploitive as she wrote about a family that is poor and uneducated. Instead the story is infused with compassion and patience as she not only takes the family along with her on a journey to understand their current situation and the ancestor whose life was so rich in legacy but poor in compensation; she educates the family in the process. I get the sense that the author grew to genuinely love Henrietta and her family. I am in awe of this level of commitment.
The author has managed to explain the complex scientific information in a way that anyone can comprehend and be fascinated by. The author's telling of the science alone and the journey of Henrietta's immortal cells (HeLa) would have made the book a worthy read in itself. Ms. Skloot and Henrietta captured me from page one all the way to the final page of the book. I read it in one pass and I didn't want it to end.
The author manages to beautifully tell multiple stories and develops each of those stories so well that you can't help but be consumed by the book. This is the story of Henrietta. It is the story of her sweet and determined daughter, Deborah. It is the story of the extended Lacks family and their history. It is a story of race/poverty/ignorance and people who take advantage of that unfortunate trifecta. It is a story about science and ethics. It is a story that should make each of us reflect on the sacrifices made by individual humans and animals that have allowed us to benefit so much from "modern" medicine. It is a story about hope and perseverance. It is a story about love and healing.
I cannot imagine a single person I know who wouldn't love this book and benefit from reading it. I will be purchasing the final copy of the book and am looking forward to reading the book again.
I am counting the days til Ms. Skloot writes another book and can't wait to attend one of her upcoming lectures. A fan is born!
350 of 383 people found the following review helpful.
2010 Non-Fiction Award Winner?
By Gail K. Powers
As I recall this book was categorized as CANCER, I believe it might be more aptly described as science based non-fiction. In the last two decades I've seen occasional news items alluding to human cells taken from a black woman in the 1950's that have been replicated millions of times. The cells are referred to as HeLa and on the face of it I wouldn't have thought there was much of a story behind the extraction of these cells and their use by the biomed industry. However, this book dispells that rather naive assumption completely and puts a name and a face, a family, and a story behind the contents of many petri dishes and slides. THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS explains how the cells were obtained, replicated, distributed, and used without informed consent of the owner and family by John Hopkins and how they benefitted mankind w/o compensation to the family. Author Skloot tells the story of a family victimized by socioeconomic conditions and racism that can't get fundamental things like health coverage while these cells make a lot of money for the health establishment. It is a disturbing read that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished. It may also make the reader take a long hard look at the need for standardized health care in our society among many other things.
The one thing that I found fascinating about this book is how Skloot managed to take a generally dry topic that might have been addressed in a scientific textbook and humanized it on a very personal level by developing a close relationship with Henrietta's family. The input received from the family took this book to a higher level and made it a very personsl story. From my perspective, it was very hard not to get involved with the Lacks family and not feel their sense of betrayal and loss.
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