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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
11,271679425 (4.15)2 / 828
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, 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. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave. Her family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. The story of the Lacks family 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.… (more)
  1. 140
    The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (kidzdoc)
  2. 50
    Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington (lives4laughs, fannyprice)
  3. 50
    The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (bunnygirl)
    bunnygirl: personal history and stories linked with the larger African American history. if you were wondering about Skloot's reference to the Lacks family being part of the Great Migration, this book explains exactly what it is and tells the stories of three families in a similar manner.… (more)
  4. 73
    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (VenusofUrbino)
    VenusofUrbino: If you like well-researched and well-written non-fiction like "Immortal Life" then you will also appreciate Mary Roach.
  5. 40
    A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines (krazy4katz)
    krazy4katz: Reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," I was pained by the impoverished lives of people who still lived on plantations in the 1940s - lack of schooling, lack of health care, lack of any kind of decent housing etc. "A Lesson Before Dying" more directly addresses the life of people still living on plantations in the '40s. Even though I sort of knew this, it was an emotional shock to truly recognize that all the abuse and oppression did not end with the Civil War but was still there 80 years later.… (more)
  6. 30
    Body Hunters: How the Drug Industry Tests Its Products On the World's Poorest Patients by Sonia Shah (legxleg)
  7. 41
    Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande (Othemts)
  8. 20
    The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome (barbharris1)
  9. 20
    The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker (sboyte)
    sboyte: Fascinating stories of the people behind great scientific discoveries.
  10. 10
    The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (LKAYC)
  11. 10
    The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It by Ricki Lewis (krazy4katz)
    krazy4katz: Both of these books capture and humanize the process of medical discovery and the experiences of the patients. Although the authors have somewhat different backgrounds — Rebecca Skloot is a journalist with an undergraduate degree in biology, whereas Rikki Lewis has a PhD in genetics — I think the discussion of the scientific issues and the ethical issues regarding informed consent would appeal to the same readers.… (more)
  12. 10
    Truevine by Beth Macy (akblanchard)
    akblanchard: Unusual medical conditions and racism as experienced by African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
  13. 10
    Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (beyondthefourthwall)
  14. 10
    The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills (akblanchard)
    akblanchard: In both books, journalists get personally involved with their subjects.
  15. 21
    The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess by Jeff Wheelwright (LeesyLou)
    LeesyLou: If you have an interest in the social and personal ethics and background of medical care, this adds to your understanding. Minority cultures and personal medical ethics are equally poorly understood by many practitioners.
  16. 10
    The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us by Carolyn Abraham (sboyte)
  17. 10
    Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell by Boyce Rensberger (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Cell cultures are being used to study diseases as well as cure them. Learn about the cell cultures called 'HeLa' in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and read about cell cultures' utility as a whole in Life Itself.
  18. 12
    The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (macart3)
    macart3: Deals with bioethics and human experimentation without others' consent.
  19. 12
    Tissue and cell donation : an essential guide by Ruth M. Warwick (Limelite)
    Limelite: Scientific discussion of medical/ethical, and other considerations regarding patients' rights and the medical profession's responsibilities on the subject, as well as other pertinent procedures.
  20. 04
    The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy (Othemts)

(see all 20 recommendations)

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English (666)  German (1)  Japanese (1)  Swedish (1)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (671)
Showing 1-5 of 666 (next | show all)
I listened to the audio book and that may have been a mistake. I really liked the narrator, but the book was a bit too long for my taste when listening to audiobooks. 8 hours is about my limit for any topic.

Overall I liked the book and appreciated exploring the wide range for topics: Henrietta Lacks, cell research, early genetics, human experimentation, poverty, medical ethics, journalism, the difference in treatment for black and whites in the early twentieth century, etc.

However, my issues will echo other reviews here in that this book focuses entirely too much on Skloot's journey to write this book. Instead of being a non0fiction book about all of the topics above, it is about Skloot writing a book about all of those topics; there is a difference and it got tiring toward the end. She inserts herself into the story so much, it became more about her journey instead of Henrietta Lacks, her family and the scientists involved in HeLa cell research. It is an important story to tell, yet Skloot seems a bit too congratulatory of her role and how much she inserted herself into the Lacks' life. It is also rather odd how much she rails against scientist who have sold HeLa cells for not compensating the family, yet she is doing the same thing. She goes out of her way to remind the Lack family that she is funding her own research and that she will not pay them. Scholarship fund or not, it is was telling that she points out how the family can't afford a headstone for Deborah, the very woman she has badgered and pushed for years while researching this book, flaming to be her close friend by the end. The relationship just seems one-sided and it was uncomfortable watching Skloot navigate the Lack family with her privilege, her own discomfort with their poverty and lack of education, and frankly her sense of being their savior and representative. ( )
  JustZelma | Dec 20, 2020 |
Interesting read. The two central stories are how Henrietta Lacks contributed to producing the HeLa cell line and how her children have dealt with finding out about this. It covers a time period from the 1950s through to 2009 or so.

Henrietta Lacks's ancestors were slaves in the US. Her family are religious with little or no formal education. The family were never informed about their mother's cell line for decades. When they did eventually find out their lack of understanding, information and religious beliefs led to anger, frustration, grief.

The book is pretty well laid, giving just enough information. The author could have probably made the book several times longer but thankfully she didn't.

Makes me want to read more about the scientific side of cells. ( )
  adrian_smith | Dec 20, 2020 |
Read only the first 50 pages or so. It was enough to get the background of what had happened and a bit of an understanding of the issues about cell research. ( )
  kshydog | Dec 13, 2020 |
I've been sick and not keeping up with books online and listened to this during that period.
I initially didn't add a review because I have such mixed feelings about this book.
The research is impeccable and I appreciate the access to this story. At the same time I feel uncomfortable in a way with how the author handled her interactions with the family. They rubbed me the wrong way. I've since done some research and found perhaps the author did cross the line a bit with the family.
That leaves me feeling differently about the book as a whole.
Important information gained in a manner not handled as respectfully by the author as it should've been?
  LoisSusan | Dec 10, 2020 |
This is a powerful book about one woman's body being used by science, all without knowledge of her family. The pacing is tight, and the dense material reads well. I do have questions about a white woman writing black vernacular English, though, and I wonder if there were conversations about journalistic integrity and recreation--I just know that white folx have appropriated BVE to present wrong assumptions about black folx. I certainly do not think Ms. Skloot had any bad intentions here at all. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 666 (next | show all)
Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.
 
I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.
 
Writing with a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family, all driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force.
added by sduff222 | editBooklist, Donna Seaman (Dec 1, 2009)
 
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in a “colored” hospital ward in Baltimore in 1951. She would have gone forever unnoticed by the outside world if not for the dime-sized slice of her tumor sent to a lab for research eight months earlier. ...
Skloot, a science writer, has been fascinated with Lacks since she first took a biology class at age 16. As she went on to earn a degree in the subject, she yearned to know more about the woman, anonymous for years, who was responsible for those ubiquitous cells....
 
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.
added by Shortride | editPublishers Weekly
 

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rebecca Sklootprimary authorall editionscalculated
Campbell, CassandraNarratormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Turpin, BahniNarratormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Acedo, Sara R.Cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grip, GöranTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Townsend, MandaPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
We must not see any person as an abstraction.
Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets,
with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish,
and with some measure of triumph.

----Elie Wiesel
from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code
Dedication
For my family:

My parents, Betsy and Floyd; their spouses, Terry and Beverly;
my brother and sister-in-law, Matt and Renee;
and my wonderful nephews, Nick and Justin.
They all did without me for far too long because of this book,
but never stopped believing in it, or me.

And in loving memory of my grandfather,
James Robert Lee (1912-2003),
who treasured books more than anyone I've known.
First words
On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall.
Quotations
...But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors? Don't make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don't get a dime. I used to get so mad about that to where it made me sick and I had to take pills. But I don't got it in me no more to fight. I just want to know who my mother was.
----Deborah Lacks
When I tell people the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells, the first question is usually Wasn't it illegal for doctors to take Henrietta's cells without her knowledge? Don't doctors have to tell you when they use your cells in research? The answer is no--not in 1951, and not in 2009, when this book went to press.
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Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, 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. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave. Her family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. The story of the Lacks family 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.

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Book description
Non-fiction. This book is a memoir, a biography, a human interest story w/ racial, legal & moral issues. Covers the journey of the HeLa cells.
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