Summary and book reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2010, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

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Book Summary

Winner of BookBrowse's 2010 Best Book Award
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.

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 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.

PROLOGUE
The Woman in the Photograph

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve 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. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a 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 it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
A Teacher's Guide is available at randomhouse.com and in this PDF. Not only does this have a wealth of information for educators but, towards the end, has information that might be of interest to general readers including resource links, a list of characters and a timeline.

Reader's Guide

  1. On page xiii, Rebecca Skloot states "This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated." Consider the process Skloot went through to verify dialogue, recreate scenes, and establish facts. Imagine trying to re-create scenes such as when Henrietta discovered her tumor (page 15). What does Skloot say on pages xiii–xiv and in the notes section (page 346) about how she ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

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

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    BookBrowse Awards
    2010

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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).

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Media Reviews

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.

Entertainnment Weekly

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.

Chicago Sun-Times

[A] tour-de-force debut... an important book, one that will linger — like Henrietta’s cells — long after you’ve turned the last page.

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.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Booklist

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.

Library Journal

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.

Author Blurb 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.

Reader Reviews

Sharon G

A Question of Ethics?
While the subject's cells were initially (and innocently) gathered in an attempt to treat her illness, what ultimately developed presents many questions of ethics and conscience on the part of the medical profession. Greed and capitalism are also ...   Read More

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

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

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

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Beyond the Book

HPV Vaccines

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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