The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


, non-fiction, reviewed, 2016, biography, non-fiction, topic-science-health, library, medical-fiction-and-nonfiction, science, read-authors-q-t, biography, audiobook, american-author, 2015, science, ebook, bioethics, read-for-work, my-review-or-notes, x2016-read, book-club-books, nfbc-botm-and-br, bio, Nonfiction, Science, History, Biography, Health, Audiobook, Medical, Book Club, Biography Memoir, Historical

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 enslaved 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 quarters for enslaved people, 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 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.

Title:The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Edition Language:English
Format Type:

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Reviews

  • Kemper

    The doorbell rang the other day and when I answered it, there was a very slick guy in a nice suit standing there and a limousine parked at the curb. He started shaking my hand and wormed his way into ...

  • Petra mourning Ollie, my beloved little kittie

    This is an all-gold five star read.It's actually two stories, the story of the HeLa cells and the story of the Lacks family told by a journalist who writes the first story objectively and the second, ...

  • Emily May

    “She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?” I've moved this book on and off my ...

  • Will Byrnes

    On October 4, 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a thirty-one-year old black woman, died after a gruesome battle with a rapidly metastasizing cancer. During her treatment, the doctors at Johns Hopkins took some c...

  • Always Pouting

    This was a really good book that leaves one with more questions than it answers, especially at this moment with the explosion in investment and growth in health/biotech. A lot of those questions are o...

  • Laura

    Fascinating and Thought-Provoking. Strengths: *Fantastically interesting subject!One woman's cancerous cells are multiplied and distributed around the globe enabling a new era of cellular research a...

  • Chelsea

    This could have been an incredible book. Henrietta Lacks' story is finally told--and Skloot makes very clear how important Lacks' cells have been to the last 60 years of science and, paradoxically, ho...

  • NReads

    This is such an important story. HeLa cells were a miracle to humanity and all thanks to Hernietta Lacks and the doctor.It is a must-read....

  • Angela M

    4.5 stars. A young black mother dies of cervical cancer in 1950 and unbeknownst to her becomes the impetus for many medical advances through the decades that follow because of the cancer cells that we...

  • Kathleen

    My thoughts on this book are kind of all over the place. I feel for the Lacks family, I really do. It's hard to read about the poverty and lack of education and the cavalier approach towards informed ...