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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
14,783743385 (4.16)2 / 884
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. 60
    Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington (lives4laughs, fannyprice)
  3. 93
    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.
  4. 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)
  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
    The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World's Poorest Patients by Sonia Shah (legxleg)
  7. 30
    Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (beyondthefourthwall)
  8. 41
    Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande (Othemts)
  9. 20
    The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome (barbharris1)
  10. 20
    The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (LKAYC)
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 10
    The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us by Carolyn Abraham (sboyte)
  15. 10
    The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills (akblanchard)
    akblanchard: In both books, journalists get personally involved with their subjects.
  16. 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)
  17. 10
    Truevine by Beth Macy (akblanchard)
    akblanchard: Unusual medical conditions and racism as experienced by African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
  18. 12
    The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (macart3)
    macart3: Deals with bioethics and human experimentation without others' consent.
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    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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» See also 884 mentions

English (732)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Catalan (1)  Japanese (1)  German (1)  All languages (738)
Showing 1-5 of 732 (next | show all)
This book was stupendous. Henrietta Lacks' story was both sad and angering. The treatment she underwent for her tumor seems barbaric now, though it was state of the art then. And it's hard not to see the researchers as callous, caring more about the tumor cells than the woman.

Rebecca Skloot spent many years writing this book, and the detail is wonderful. She paints a sympathetic picture of Henrietta's family and what they went through during Henrietta's life and after her death. She is unflinching in her descriptions of the hair-raising things that researchers did to other people in the name of science.

In the end there are no pat resolutions on the subject of medical ethics, tissue rights, etc. There is plenty of food for thought, though.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I'm glad my sister made me read it. ( )
  Bookladycma | May 18, 2024 |
Well-spoken and a talent for piecing a story together for optimum comprehension, Rebecca Skloot does a remarkable job of immersing the reader in the fears and joys of Debra Lacks and her siblings, as she relates the story of their mother, Henrietta Lacks, who, in 1951, when dying of cancer--complicated by syphilis, provided the gift of her cancer cells, which have lived on to provide a window into the mysterious biological mechanisms of life itself. If you thought biology was a bit too cold and scientific a subject, devoid of villains or heroes, think again. Depending on where I was, I alternated formats on this book, reading it both as an e-book and an audio. Each has its special benefits. Cassandra Campbell is a fabulous reader, and you really don’t want to miss the concluding author interview on the audio, but the photos of the characters in the print version should not be missed either.
( )
  TraSea | Apr 29, 2024 |
I was really moved by this story. I don't read much nonfiction, but am very glad I made time for this one. It's filled with important information about Henrietta, the cells that have done so much for science, and the wreckage and pain that is often left behind when a loved one is lost, particularly in difficult circumstances. I learned so much, but also found myself very involved in the Lacks family's struggle. It's sad, touching, and finally hopeful. ( )
  rknickme | Mar 31, 2024 |
I waited about 2 years for this to become available at the library but was not disappointed.
A controversial subject dealt with in a thoughtful and balanced way ( )
  cspiwak | Mar 6, 2024 |
Good science writing. This book raises lots of questions about medical research and profits, race, poverty, education and ethical issues involving tissue and cell ownership.

The beginning of the book was a lot more interesting to me than the end. Part one concentrates more on Henrietta's cancer and diagnosis whereas the end of the book involves the author and Henrietta's family. The author is persistent and fearless in her pursuit of information for the book. Unfortunately the way the family was described made them appear unsympathetic or as one reviewer said "insufferable."

I do wish the author had stressed right from the start that the HeLa cells "taken without her knowledge" were cancer cells. The Drs. did take healthy tissue too but those cells did not survive.

I really like the quote the author used by Elie Wiesel. "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." ( )
  ellink | Jan 22, 2024 |
Showing 1-5 of 732 (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.
This is a work of non-fiction. (A Few Words About This Book)
There's a photo of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. (Prologue)
When I tell people the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells, their 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?
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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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, which 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, 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.

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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? 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.
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