Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The

Rebecca Skloot
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.

Reviews

Reviewed: 2020-12-31
Absolutely a very intriguing book. Not normally a book I would read, just joined a book club and this was the book selected. I don't think I would have ever known about Hela cells. Definitely makes you think about how many times your blood and/or cells have been taken from you without your knowing or providing your consent.
Reviewed: 2018-07-11

To think that a lot of the medical advancements would not have happened if it was not for the life and death of Henrietta Lacks.  I have heard many podcasts about the story, but now I have finally read the book cover to cover.  It is truly an amazing story of one daughter's search to understand HeLa and all the medical advancements the cells have aided in, learning the truth about her mother and sister, and finally seeing her 'mother' decades after her passing.

Reviewed: 2017-01-04

Skloot takes a significant scientific advancement and sheds light on the human story behind it.  She reminds us that no invention or innovation takes place in a cold laboratory alone, and her descriptive narrative writing style is informative while making the reader feel like he/she is right there investigating alongside the author.  Highly recommended for anyone, and especially if you are interested in investigative research, science, effective storytelling, and viewing issues from different perspectives.

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