Winner of BookBrowse's 2010 Best Book Award
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.
The Woman in the Photograph
Theres a photo on my wall of a woman Ive never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. Its the late 1940s and she hasnt yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside hera tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.
No one knows who took that picture, but its appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. Shes usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. Shes simply called HeLa, the code name given to the worlds first immortal human cellsher cells, cut from her ...
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 always thoroughly read consent forms before signing them?
I don't understand the reluctance of some people to agree to the use of their tissue samples, whether for research purposes or just for diagnostic purposes. If anything from my tissues can be used to help someone else, then why not? The samples are... - kageeh
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
Henrietta's story is divided into three parts by theme (Life, Death and Immortality), how would the story have been different if told chronologically?
The complexity and depth of "Immortal Henrietta" is one of the things that appealed to me most. I saw four distinct stories within the story and each could stand on their own as a subject of a novel. Obviously, first and foremost is Henrietta's story... - paulak
How do you think you would react if you discovered hidden family secrets similar to the ones Deborah learns?
Discovering family secrets were one thing but the Lacks felt used and were very angry. Hopefully the emotions they felt didn't make objectivity impossible for them. Accepting Henrietta's horrific death and the helplessness of science to save her ... - marcias
How does religious faith help frame the Lacks' response to and interpretation of the scientific information they receive about HeLa?
This is a great question and Diane L. answers it so well above. Somehow the faith of the Lacks family iluminates all that is good in the scientific story, and what is admirable in the history of the Lacks family. Deborah's costant intuiton of her ... - jop
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).
Full Review (1173 words).
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 ...
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