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 cellstaken without her knowledgebecame 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, theyd weigh more than 50 million metric tonsas much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bombs 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 Henriettas 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.
Henriettas 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 familyespecially Henriettas daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mothers 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 couldnt 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.
Some of the recent comments posted about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.
Do you own your own tissue samples?
I never really thought about it. I wouldn't mind my tissue samples being used for the benefit of all but do have a problem with them being used for greed. I think I would want to know if they were being used for commercial purposes. There can be a... - bettyt
What caused Henrietta's cells to survive when others didn't?
There's a great book about the serendipity of many medical discoveries called "Happy Accidents" - http://www.bookbrowse.com/reviews/index.cfm/book_number/1957/happy-accidents which illustrates many examples relating to dianel's comment - as... - davinamw
Skloot strikes a tricky balance between inserting herself into the narrative and stepping back to let the Lacks family, the heart and soul of the book, tell their stories. For the most part she succeeds... Just as she brings dignity to the individuals who make scientific investigation possible, she also expertly lays out the pros and cons of the current tissue research debate... an engaging introduction to these issues, one that hooks the reader with its emphasis on the real people behind the controversy. (Reviewed by Marnie Colton).
The Washington Post - Eric Roston
Skloot's vivid account…reads like a novel. The prose is unadorned, crisp and transparent…This book, labeled "science--cultural studies," should be treated as a work of American history.
The Seattle Times
[A] fast read even at 300+ pages, [this book] not only restores Lacks' humanity but appears to have brought a measure of peace to her troubled family. It's as much an act of justice as one of journalism.
The New York Times
[O]ne of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time... It has brains and pacing and nerve and heart, and it is uncommonly endearing.
I could not put the book down... Through Lacks, the story of modern medicine and bioethics — and, indeed, race relations — is refracted beautifully, and movingly. A.
The New Yorker
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.
[A] tour-de-force debut... an important book, one that will linger — like Henrietta’s cells — long after you’ve turned the last page.
Starred Review. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people.
Starred Review. [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.
Starred Review. While there are other titles on this controversy ... this is the most compelling account for general readers, especially those interested in questions of medical research ethics. Highly recommended.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation 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.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Caroline Smith Not Worth My Time The research Rebecca Skloot did for this book is an unimaginable amount. I do wish that she had taken more time organizing the book. It is quite jumpy for a nonfiction with a lot of useless comments. A lot of very good ethical issues are brought up... Read More
Rated of 5
by Becky H THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot It seems silly to go over the “plot” of this biography of Mrs. Lacks again, so I will just say that this non-fiction work details how Mrs. Lacks and her family were lied to, misled, ill informed, taken advantage of and used by the medical community... Read More
Rated of 5
by Aem Henrietta Lacks This story was beautifully written it kept me captivated as I read through it. I found it to be informational and very interesting. There wasn't a time where i was reading I thought it was boring. The way she brought Henrietta to life on the pages... Read More
Rated of 5
by Malcolm great book Rebecca Skloot touches on issues that still are burning questions in medical research today. Through the story of a family who lost a member named Henrietta Lacks - a mother, wife, and cousin - to cervical cancer. The doctors took a tissue sample... Read More
Rated of 5
by CarolK Outstanding blend of Science & History This has been on my TBR list for most of 2010.I knew I wanted to read it as soon as I heard it involved The HeLa Cells. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I had heard about these famous cells taken from an African American woman diagnosed with... Read More
Rated of 5
by Karen R Interesting and Enlightening I recommend this to those who like history and science. The author is to be praised for her exhaustive research into the history of HeLa cells and how they've made an impact on lives around the world. Interesting and enlightening. However, my... Read More
Cervical cancer, the disease that killed Henrietta Lacks, strikes 11,000-13,000 women in the United States every year, killing 4,000. While the Pap smear (developed by Greek scientist Georgio Papanikolaou) remains the most widely used and effective method for detecting pre-cancerous cells on the cervix, a new vaccine protects women from developing certain kinds of human papillomavirus (HPV), the condition that causes most cervical cancers. Yet controversy swirls around this vaccine in the United States, raising ethical issues such as whether to require mandatory vaccination for girls entering school and sparking fears that vaccinations might reduce the practice of safer sex methods or even lead to promiscuity. Others worry that the vaccine has been rushed to market without enough testing.
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