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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by…

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (edition 2011)

by Rebecca Skloot (Author)

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8,793593344 (4.15)2 / 784
Title:The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Authors:Rebecca Skloot (Author)
Info:Broadway Books (2011), 381 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  1. 140
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    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)
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    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)
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    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)
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    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.
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Showing 1-5 of 588 (next | show all)
The science and ethics part of the book was interesting, but the family story went on for too long and took away from the overall story for me. ( )
  Nlan | Oct 5, 2017 |
I was impressed by the readability of this work of non-fiction. It was true to the people and issues, just as was promised and intended. ( )
  lissabeth21 | Oct 3, 2017 |
In the 1950s, a poor African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins hospital for treatment of cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, some of her cancerous cells were scraped from her body, put into culture, and grown. As her cells multiplied at astounding rates, they were distributed throughout the country and came to be influential in many medical research studies from creating the polio vaccine to mapping DNA. Meanwhile, her children suffered the loss of their mother at a young age and consequently grew up in poverty and abuse, lacking education and health care. Science writer Rebecca Skloot made it her mission to get Henrietta's story told and her decades of research lead to this book.

This was such a fantastic read. It was thought-provoking and led to many questions that lack easy answers (particularly those related to biomedical ethics) and no clear-cut "bad guys." It is scientific and though some of that science was a bit over my head, the book is not bogged down with excessive details that are too hard to understand. Skloot also provides a great deal of historical details to place everything into context. And last but certainly not least, the Lacks family plays a large role in the book, making the book ultimately a human story of suffering and of hope.

The book is not told strictly in chronological order, but it flows in a way that makes perfect sense. I was very impressed with the writing and the storytelling. After years of hearing hype about this book, I was a little bit hesitant that it would not be able to live up to that, but it did and then some.

Photographs, extensive notes, a timeline, and other back matter make for a well-rounded nonfiction book that allows the reader to examine more on their own if desired. ( )
  sweetiegherkin | Sep 23, 2017 |
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 ”

From Rebecca Skloot: “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.”

In 1951, a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks became a cancer patient at the famous (and infamous) Johns Hopkins hospital.

During an initial biopsy of a tumor on her cervix, a sample of the cells was also sent to Dr. George Gey's lab. Dr. Gey had attempted to grow human cells in the laboratory from hundreds of other samples and been unsuccessful. But Ms. Lacks' cells proved different. They grew and thrived and became an important and ubiquitous scientific tool which ended up revolutionizing the distribution of the polio vaccine, cancer and genetic research and many other specialties in the microbiological research world.

In some ways, the story of HeLa cells in laboratories parallels the story of the explosion of the internet. No one could foresee how both would thrive and change the world.

Henrietta Lack's family had no idea that her cells were being used. The family was both frightened and shocked when they discovered this fact, some twenty years later. They imagined the worst, believing that Henrietta's cells were somehow sentient; scientific techniques such as cell cloning and hybridization terrified them. They also questioned how an industry could earn billions of dollars using her cells, and yet they themselves were so poor they couldn't afford doctors or insurance.

It's an interesting story of medical ethics.

Rebecca Skloot presents the case that Ms Lacks had no knowledge that her cells were being used. Indeed, Johns Hopkins issued a statement confirming that version. Yet, it is reported that Dr. George Gey said he had talked with Henrietta before her death, a fact that Skloot mentions and dismisses. And courts decided there was no evidence one way or the other if Henrietta had given consent since whatever consent papers Lacks may have signed were destroyed. Cells grown from a second biopsy didn't grow. Neither did cells recovered at Ms. Lacks autopsy which the family gave permission for.

Skloot brings in many other medical ethics cases involving racism and the de-humanizing of research subjects. She also recounts other cell ownership cases. By telling these instances in parallel to the HeLa story, one is left with the distinct impression that a wrong was committed against Ms. Lacks.

There are medical inconsistencies throughout the book which bother me. For instances of page 16 in Henrietta's presenting notes: “Two months prior to current visit, after delivery of fifty child, patient had significant blood in urine. Tests showed areas of increased cellular activity in the cervix. Physician recommended diagnostics and referred to specialist for ruling out infection or cancer. Patient cancelled appointment.” On the next page, p 17, the doctor states “No note is made in the history at that time, or at the six weeks' return visit that there is any abnormality of the cervix.” “Yet here she was, three months later, with a full-fledged tumor. Either her doctors had missed it during her last exams- which seemed impossible or it had grown at a terrifying rate”.

There is one more issue that bothers me. That is medical privacy.

Skloot says “Dead people have no right to privacy.” It seems to me that an incredible error in judgment was made when one of the doctors released details about Henrietta Lacks and her medical records to a reporter for an article that appeared in Rolling Stone in the 70's. I acknowledge that without this leak, Henrietta's story would have been unknown and her family would never have been able to point with pride to her unique contribution.

But one of my questions is why did Skloot let her inner reporter loose to write about that the mental problems several of Henrietta's children had that were probably due to being born from a syphilitic mother? Did the Lacks' children and grandchildren know that these details were coming out in the book? How did these details of Henrietta's children tell the story of the HeLa cells other than making the book a bit more titillating? Henrietta appears to have been such a private person – keeping her cancer diagnosis away from her family even while she was having inpatient treatments. Would she have approved of this?

Skloot worked long and hard to gain the trust of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who felt that the family had been exploited at every turn. Deborah died before the book was published. How would she have felt about these details of her own medical history in the book?

So I'm torn about this book. It raises interesting medical ethics questions, blithely skips over other questions such as that of privacy, and leaves the majority of people who read with a rather false impression of the events; not by facts, but by the technique of combining this story with other stories where boundaries were clearly crossed. ( )
1 vote streamsong | Sep 21, 2017 |
Excellent amalgam of biography, social commentary and science. ( )
1 vote nautilus | Sep 20, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 588 (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 (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rebecca Sklootprimary authorall editionscalculated
Acedo, Sara R.Cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Campbell, CassandraNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grip, GöranTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Townsend, MandaPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Turpin, BahniNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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
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 nonfiction. (A Few Words About This Book)
There's a photo on my wall 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 twll you when they use your cells in research? (Afterword)
...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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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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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--From publisher description.… (more)

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