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.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Starred Review. Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women--Skloot and Deborah Lacks--sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line--known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot's portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. 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. (Feb.)
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Showing 1-8 of the 8 most recent reviews
1 . Must Read
Posted July 30, 2011 by Denise , Columbus, OhioExcellent and very entertaining. I couldn't put it down. I have told everyone to please read the book before seeing the movie......
2 . Good human interest story
Posted July 30, 2011 by kjn , Minneapolis, MNWell written. I was expecting the book to be more about the HeLa cells than Henrietta's family but it was still a good read and touching telling of the impact this had on her family. It raises some good questions about what scientists and doctors should be allowed to do with tissues taken from a patient.
3 . very moving stoy
Posted July 14, 2011 by paula yost , pittsville MDVery good book. I am sucked in to the true story of a brave woman who unknowingly changed the future of medicine. Such a compelling story of a family learning the truth of her medical history and background. The fact that it is all true and most occurred in Maryland is fascinating and also tragic. It seems unjust that this family did not benefit from her cells as the world profited from her. I just hope that the good it accomplished over shadows the heart ache it caused.
4 . Fascinating read
Posted March 02, 2011 by Reader , WinnipegCompelling and insightful. An incredible book that explores the politics of medicine, race, poverty. Definitely worth the read.
5 . Incredible story worth reading!!!
Posted April 22, 2010 by Abby , Vancouver, BCThis book should definately be in the "must read" catagory. The author brilliantly wrote about how the science community profited greatly from the HeLa cells, both in $ and scientific research....to the understanding how deeply scarred the immediate family became after the loss of their mother/wife to cancer. I was dumfounded by the insensitivity of the science community, in the name of "reaserch"...that they totally forgot the human equation, namely Henrietta Lacks and her family. Rebecca Skloot takes an unflinching honest look at both the scientific benefits of the HeLa cells, to the human story of how the family has had to cope with the knowledge that these cells were taken, without permition or received any profits from them being sold ...to finally, telling the family (after decades) what indeed happened to these cells and how they were being used for research. Wonderful, moving story!!!
6 . Don't Miss This Book
Posted April 12, 2010 by TL , DetroitThis book is about HeLa cells but more importantly it's about Henrietta Lacks, the married mother that died in 1951of cancer And "donated" her cells without knowing about it, nor did her family.
HeLa cells have been extremely beneficial to modern science and directly involved with finding a vaccine for Polio among many other things. All these years later Henriettas cells are still alive and still helping scientist everywhere.
This book is well written, the author explains cells in a way that we can all understand what she's talking about.
I couldn't put this book down. I'm extremly greatful to Henrietta and I feel terrible for her family because as usual in America, big business made Billions of dollars from these cells while Henriettas family can't even afford to see a doctor when the need arises.
Don't let the topic throw you, this is a very good book and I reccommend it highly.
7 . Best book I've read in a long time!!!
Posted April 04, 2010 by LMC30340 , Lawrenceville, GASaw this book in a magazine and thought I would take a chance and I am glad I did. This book had the science behind the HeLa cells but not without the humanity. It is well written and easy to understand. The words on the page move your heart after realizing what happened to get these cells and to Henrietta's family. At points, it even moved me to tears and laughter. This is a must read for anyone...it's one that will stay with me forever!
8 . Science in an easy to understand format
Posted February 13, 2010 by bluebells2 , Silver Spring, MDThis book is a wonderful book that was written up on both Washington Post books and amazon. It is a novel written in easy to understand terms of science. It tells the story of poverty, race, medical science, lack of communications and what can occur. It tells the history of the HELA cell line that is used primarily in science today. The family that the line was taken from is colored and cannot even afford to have any form of medical benefits. The writing style is easy to understand. Wonderful novel. The best I have read in a long time.
February 01, 2010
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