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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
12,679712383 (4.15)2 / 842
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
    Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (beyondthefourthwall)
  10. 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.
  11. 10
    The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (LKAYC)
  12. 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)
  13. 10
    Truevine by Beth Macy (akblanchard)
    akblanchard: Unusual medical conditions and racism as experienced by African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
  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 (707)  German (1)  Japanese (1)  Swedish (1)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (712)
Showing 1-5 of 707 (next | show all)
In the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks, a young Black mother in Maryland, was diagnosed with and ultimately succumbed to an aggressive type of cervical cancer. Without her or her family's knowledge or permission, doctors took a sample of the tumor for potential medical research before she died. Those cells, known by the label "HeLa," proliferated and are still alive, shared and used worldwide today. They have been used in the research of countless areas of medicine, from blood disorders and the polio vaccine to aging, tuberculosis, cancers, and HIV.

This story was an absolute page-turner (I finished in just two days), but engrossing in the way one finds it difficult to look away from something simultaneously fascinating and horrible. I cannot imagine the nightmarish shock felt by the Lacks family upon learning that medical researchers had essentially been keeping part of her mother alive for years following her death, which had already been an intensely painful experience for them, and in addition learning that her cells had been bought and sold for a profit of billions of dollars. This book exposes the enormous ethical entanglement surrounding the use of human cells for research without patient permission, despite it being not technically illegal to do so. My heart ached for this family and their experience, and I felt compelled afterward to donate to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. ( )
  ryner | May 13, 2022 |
Great read start to end. I keep losing my copy. People just don't return it. I learned alot and enjoyed the story. ( )
  paworkingmom | May 3, 2022 |
I wanted to be a geneticist for a long time in late teens/early 20s so the scientific stuff is just so interesting. I'm simply horrified at the treatment blacks, poor, etc were given and how they were regarded for testing in medical field. So much of the story is sad but I also wonder how far we would be in medical research, curing diseases,etc without her cells even though she didn't give the approval for removal of them.

I'm going to steal a bit of my friend's review of this book because I agree with her and she writes so well! ;-) Here goes:


I learned very little about Henrietta, yet more than I ever care to know about her degenerate and often dim children. Skloot gave a better description of her attempt to contact and persuade the Lacks family to work with her than she did fleshing Henrietta out as a person. This was the story of Henrietta's daughter learning about her mother and her sister.

The best part about this book was the Afterword, which delved into the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding the growth and use of the HeLa cells to aid Science; court cases and legal precedents were cited. I found that completely enthralling.

I didn't care about a single one of Henrietta's family members, especially her philandering husband (also her cousin) who repeatedly gave her syphilis and gonorrhea. No doubt the HPV virus was a bit of his doing and caused the tumor that killed her.

The first parts of the book were interesting enough to hold my attention, then it all devolved into idiocy. There was the obligatory laying-on-of-hands and the divine-hand-of-Henrietta-through-her-cells nonsense. Science, for all its promotion in the book and multiple examples of diseases cured and diseases now treatable and vaccines, took a back seat toward the end to the proverbial higher power at work. Perhaps if Deborah hadn't relied on Science after her stroke or Benadryl after her hives, the amazing HeLa cells would have flown to the rescue.

They're cells, not embodiments of the wishes of the living organism from which they came.

I have many reasons why the Lacks family should not be financially compensated for their mother's cells. I won't go into them because they are both legion and blunt.

There was also too much black vs. white discussion in here. Science didn't care who the cells came from. No one returned them when they found out they came from a black woman. The argument is all in the heads of the Lacks family (about all that is in there, in fact). ( )
  WellReadSoutherner | Apr 6, 2022 |
This would be a great book to teach with the right group of kids. ( )
  leahsusan | Mar 26, 2022 |
Very interesting story, but I love nonfiction that reads as fiction. Too much detail but I realize that was to prove the point of the author's intention and to verify the story. ( )
  WiseOwlFactory | Feb 20, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 707 (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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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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