The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford ...
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Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.
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  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Who, you might ask, is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) and why is she the subject of a book? On the surface, this short-lived African American Virginian seems an unlikely candidate for immortality. The most remarkable thing about her, some might argue, is that she had ten children during her thirty-one years on earth. Actually, we all owe Ms. Lacks a great debt and some of us owe her our lives. As Rebecca Skloot tells us in this riveting human story, Henrietta was the involuntary donor of cells from her cancerous tumors that have been cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. These so-called HeLa cells have not only generated billions of dollars for the medical industry; they have helped uncover secrets of cancers, viruses, fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. A vivid, exciting story; a 2010 Discover Great New Books finalist; a surprise bestseller in hardcover. Now in paperback and NOOKbook.

From the Publisher

Entertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of the Year
New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite
American Library Association Notable Book
People Top Ten Book of the Year
Washington Post Book World Top Ten Book of the Year Best Book of the Year
USA Today Ten Books We Loved Reading
O, The Oprah Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year
National Public Radio Best of the Bestsellers
Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year  
Financial Times Nonfiction Favorite
Los Angeles Times Critics’ Pick
Bloomberg Top Nonfiction
New York magazine Top Ten Book of the Year Favorite Book of the Year Top Ten Book of the Year
Discover magazine 2010 Must-Read
Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year
Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
U.S. News & World Report Top Debate-Worthy Book
Booklist Top of the List—Best Nonfiction Book
New York Times
/Science Bestseller list 

“I could not put the book down . . . The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful.” —New York Times Book Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.” —

A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.”
—Washington Post

Riveting...a tour-de-force debut.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine . . . The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds.”

“A jaw-dropping true story . . . raises urgent questions about race and research for ‘progress’ . . . an inspiring tale for all ages.” Essence

“This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology.” The New Yorker
“Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easily explained away.” SF Weekly
“One of the great medical biographies of our time.” The Financial Times
“Like any good scientific research, this beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched book raises nearly as many questions as it answers . . . In a time when it’s fashionable to demonize scientists, Skloot generously does not pin any sins to the lapels of the researchers. She just lets them be human . . . [and] challenges much of what we believe of ethics, tissue ownership, and humanity.” Science
“Indelible . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism.” —Laura Miller,
“No dead woman has done more for the living . . . a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.” —Hilary Mantel, The Guardian (U.K.)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do.” Dallas Morning News

“Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go.” Boston Globe

 “This remarkable story of how the cervical cells of the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, enabled subsequent discoveries from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization is extraordinary in itself; the added portrayal of Lacks's full life makes the story come alive with her humanity and the palpable relationship between race, science, and exploitation." —Paula J. Giddings, author of Ida, A Sword Among Lions; Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor, Afro-American Studies, Smith College
“Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks.” Newsweek

“Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Skloot] is determined not to. This biography ensures that she will never again be reduced to cells in a petri dish: she will always be Henrietta as well as HeLa.” The Telegraph (U.K.)
“Brings the Lacks family alive . . . gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing.” Baltimore Sun

“A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells.” Los Angeles Times
“In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life.”
Mother Jones
“More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write . . . Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating . . . a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives . . . packed with memorable characters.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Ten Book of 2010
“Astonishing . . .No matter how much you may know about basic biology, you will be amazed by this book." The Journal of Clinical Investigation

“Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly . . . A riveting narrative that is wholly original.” —THEROOT.COM
“Moving . . .” The Economist
“Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in U.S. medical research.” TIME
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine.” Vogue
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.”
National Public Radio
“An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells.” Philadelphia Inquirer
“As much an act of justice as one of journalism.” Seattle Times
“A stunning book . . . surely the definitive work on the subject.” The Independent(U.K.)
“Graceful . . . I can’t think of a better way to capture the corrosive effects of ethical transgressions in medical research. It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully rendered.” The Lancet
“Read this . . . By letting the Lackses be people, and by putting them in the center of the history, Skloot turns just another tale about the march of progress into a complicated portrait of the interaction between science and human lives. —BOINGBOING.NET
“[A] remarkable and moving book . . . a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells.” The Times (U.K.)
“I can’t imagine a better tale. A detective story that’s at once mythically large and painfully intimate. I highly recommend this book.” —Jad Abumrad, Radiolab
“Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.” The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“A rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender,medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer that can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling.” Seed
“Powerful story . . . I feel moved even to say on behalf of the thousands of anonymous black men and women who’ve been experimented on for medical purposes, thank you. Thank you for writing this important book.” —Kali-AhsetAmen, Radio Diaspora
“Skloot has written an important work of immersive nonfiction that brings not only the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa once more into line, but also catharsis to a family in sore need of it.” The Times Literary Supplement
“A masterful work of nonfiction . . . a real page turner.” —Hanna Rosin, Slate
“Skloot explores human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine’s inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave.” US News & World Report
“Remarkably balanced and nonjudgmental . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will leave readers reeling, plain and simple. It has a power and resonance rarely found in any genre, and is a subject that touches each of us, whether or not we are aware of our connection to Henrietta’s gift.” The Oregonian
“This is the perfect book. It reads like a novel but has the intellectual substance of a science textbook or a historical biography.” The Daily Nebraskan
“Illuminates what happens when medical research is conducted within an unequal health-care system and delivers an American narrative fraught with intrigue, tragedy, triumph, pathos, and redemption.” MS.

A tremendous accomplishment —a tale of important science history that reads like a terrific novel.” Kansas City Star
“Good science writing isn’t easy, but Skloot makes it appear so.” —The Wichita Eagle
“Encompasses nearly every hot-button issue currently surrounding the practice of medicine.” Madison Capital Times
“Defies easy categorization . . . as unpredictable as any pulp mystery and as strange as any science fiction.” Willamette Week
“An achievement . . . navigates both the technical and deeply personal sides of the HeLa story with clarity and care.” The Portland Mercury
“[A] remarkable book.” London Review of Books 
“An essential reminder that all human cells grown in labs across the world, HeLa or otherwise, came from individuals with fears, desires, and stories to tell.”
Chemical & Engineering News 
“Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien.” Chicago Tribune
“Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner.” —British Medical Journal
“Thrilling and original nonfiction that refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. It is equal parts popular science, historical biography, and detective novel.” —Ed Yong, DISCOVER.COM
“Best book I’ve read in years.” —Brian Sullivan, Fox Business Network
“Thanks to Rebecca Skloot, we may now remember Henrietta—who she was, how she lived, how she died.” The New Republic
“We need more writers like Rebecca Skloot.” —E.O.Wilson

Eric Roston
Skloot's vivid account…reads like a novel. The prose is unadorned, crisp and transparent…This book, labeled "science--cultural studies," should be treated as a work of American history. It's a deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led. Skloot's compassionate account can be the first step toward recognition, justice and healing.
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
…one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I've read in a very long time. A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of "Erin Brockovich," Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain. More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent…[The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks] has brains and pacing and nerve and heart, and it is uncommonly endearing.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about “faith, science, journalism, and grace.” It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, 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. (Feb.)
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 driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force. Starred review.
Lisa Margonelli
…Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the "real live woman," the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. 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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later. In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine-all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre-civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field. Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance betweensociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics. Tie-in with multicity author lecture schedule. Agent: Simon Lipskar/Writers House
Library Journal
★ 08/01/2014
Accessible science at its best, the audio version gives the story of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, all the gravity and pathos it deserves. Narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, who also worked together on The Help.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Henrietta Lacks lives a shadowy life as a footnote in biology textbooks. I first encountered her when taking a college course in cell biology: the cells used in a particular experiment, we learned, were "HeLa cells," which, though human, can grow independently outside the body in specially created laboratory conditions. They were named for the woman, Helen Lane, from whom they were originally derived. And that was all; having explained this, my professor returned to discussing the experiment and its significance. Like a drowned corpse bobbing up from the dark depths of footnote-dom, Helen Lane had surfaced briefly, only to descend again into obscurity. I didn't give her a second thought.

In contrast, science writer Rebecca Skloot also had a Helen Lane footnote moment in high school, but saw in that footnote the nucleus of a story about science and society. After ten years of HeLa sleuthing, Skloot's hunch has paid off handsomely: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a modern classic of science writing.

Let me qualify that. This isn't science writing in the sense of Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins: Skloot doesn't spend a lot of time describing or extolling scientific discoveries. For her, the science is a bit player -- though an important one -- in a complex and fascinating drama about how medical research intersected the lives of a poor black family in America. Her mixture of science and biography is sui generis, and its themes profound: racism, ethics, and scientific illiteracy.

The first thing Skloot learned was that "Helen Lane" was not the woman's real name, but a journalist's pseudonym for Henrietta Lacks. Born in1920 to a poor tobacco-farming family from southern Virginia, Lacks married and, following her husband's job, moved to Maryland. At age 31, she presented herself at Johns Hopkins Hospital, complaining of abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. Doctors found an evil-looking purple growth on her cervix, which turned out to be malignant. She was given the latest treatment -- a packet of radium sewn inside her vagina -- but it didn't work. Eight months later Lacks died in agony, leaving five young children.

But for a quirk of fate, Lacks would be just another working person who lived and died in obscurity. A slice of her biopsy fell into the hands of George Gey, a researcher at Hopkins who, with the help of his wife Mary, had spent fruitless years trying to keep human cells alive in the laboratory. (This "tissue culture" is crucial for medical research since it obviates the need to experiment on living patients.) For some reason Helen's cells, which Gey dubbed "HeLa," not only lived, but divided rapaciously, becoming the first human cells that could be cultured indefinitely in the lab. We now know why: Lacks's cells have elevated amounts of an enzyme that keeps them from ageing.

Convinced that HeLa cells were the key to curing cancer, Gey handed them out gratis to dozens of researchers. And they became a scientific gold mine, used to develop the first polio vaccines, test chemotherapy drugs like Taxol, find treatments for AIDS, work out techniques for in vitro fertilization, and map genes onto human chromosomes. Even now, after nearly sixty years, 14 scientific papers on HeLa cells are published every day. Clearly, Henrietta Lacks achieved both physical and scientific immortality.

But her family was unaware of her distinction, and although biotechnology companies made millions of dollars peddling HeLa cells, her children never saw a dime. In fact, they didn't even know about the famous cells until years after Henrietta's death, finding out only when her daughter-in-law, who learned about them by accident, called the family with a chilling message: "Part of your mother, it's alive!" The commercial exploitation of Lacks's cells made her kin feel exploited and resentful. It took Skloot a year to get the family to return her phone calls, several more before they opened up completely. Eventually Skloot became friend and confidante to Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who was only an infant when her mother died. Deborah's search for the mother she never knew, and for the significance of her still-growing cells, is the pivot on which Skloot's story turns.

As Skloot led her through the maze of science, Deborah became deeply ambivalent. On one hand she was proud of her mother's contributions to medicine, on the other she became paranoid and erratic, worried that she would catch her mother's cancer or be pursued by the same doctors who, she believed, killed Henrietta. The tumultuous friendship between author and subject makes for some amazing vignettes: Deborah seeing her mother's cells for the first time under a microscope ("Oh God," she gasped. "I can't believe all that's my mother"); Deborah worrying that the experimental fusion of HeLa cells with plant cells would produce a "human monster that was half her mother, half tobacco"; Deborah being exorcised of the demon cells by her evangelical cousin Gary as Skloot looks on ("LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS!").

The family finally makes peace with HeLa, deciding that "God chose Henrietta as an angel who would be reborn as immortal cells." Despite this, Skloot's tale doesn't end happily. But I defy you to read it without being moved. Or without thinking, for beneath the book runs a subliminal conversation about medical ethics. Apart from the selfless George Gey, Skloot's scientists and doctors behaved less than honorably. Henrietta Lacks's cells were cultured, disseminated, and sold without her or the family's knowledge or consent. Doctors with more curiosity than morality injected the cells into unsuspecting patients to see if they could cause cancer. The aggressive growth of HeLa cells caused them to contaminate other human cell cultures throughout the world, but scientists refused to admit the problem lest they lose reputation and funding. And, to track down this contamination, scientists at Johns Hopkins requested blood samples from Deborah and her siblings, but misled them by saying they were being "tested for cancer." Skloot avoids moralizing, but the injustice done to the Lacks family is palpable. One of many reasons to buy this wonderful book is to redress that injury: part of the profits go to a scholarship fund for Henrietta Lacks's descendants.

Skloot's afterword describes the current state of medical ethics. Sadly, progress has been slow. Yes, patients' names and records are now private, and scientists can't experiment on living subjects without informed consent, but doctors can still remove, profit from, and even patent a patient's tissues and DNA without her permission. This has become increasingly worrisome in the modern age of genomics. Since anyone's DNA might harbor a gene that is medically or commercially useful, all of us are fertile ground for genetic prospecting. That's not inherently bad, but researchers should remember the first dictum of medical ethics: patients are fellow human beings, not just collections of genes and tissues. Skloot describes how that insight struck George Gey's assistant when she saw Henrietta Lacks, nails carefully tended, laid out on the autopsy table:

"When I saw those toenails," Mary told me years later, "I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh geez, she's a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we'd been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I'd never thought of it that way."

--Jerry Coyne

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400052189
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 381
  • Sales rank: 134
  • Lexile: 1140L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.84 (w) x 5.22 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Skloot

REBECCA SKLOOT is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many others. She is coeditor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She was named one of five surprising leaders of 2010 by the Washington Post. Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen as a best book of 2010 by more than sixty media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, People, and the New York Times. It is being translated into more than twenty-five languages, adapted into a young reader edition, and being made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She lives in Chicago. For more information, visit her website at, where you’ll find links to follow her on Twitter and Facebook. 

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Read an Excerpt

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot


Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Skloot All right reserved.
ISBN: 9781400052172

The Woman in the Photograph

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”
No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.
Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, whathappened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.
There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.
I first learned about HeLa cells and the woman behind them in 1988, thirty-seven years after her death, when I was sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. He pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didn’t understand, like “MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations.”
I was a kid who’d failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. I’d transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Defler’s class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost.
“Do we have to memorize everything on those diagrams?” one student yelled.
Yes, Defler said, we had to memorize the diagrams, and yes, they’d be on the test, but that didn’t matter right then. What he wanted us to understand was that cells are amazing things: There are about one hundred trillion of them in our bodies, each so small that several thousand could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. They make up all our tissues—muscle, bone, blood—which in turn make up our organs.
Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) that’s full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and a yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. It’s crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. All the while, little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7, cranking out sugars, fats, proteins, and energy to keep the whole thing running and feed the nucleus. The nucleus is the brains of the operation; inside every nucleus within each cell in your body, there’s an identical copy of your entire genome. That genome tells cells when to grow and divide and makes sure they do their jobs, whether that’s controlling your heartbeat or helping your brain understand the words on this page.
Defler paced the front of the classroom telling us how mitosis—the process of cell division—makes it possible for embryos to grow into babies, and for our bodies to create new cells for healing wounds or replenishing blood we’ve lost. It was beautiful, he said, like a perfectly choreographed dance.
All it takes is one small mistake anywhere in the division process for cells to start growing out of control, he told us. Just one enzyme misfiring, just one wrong protein activation, and you could have cancer. Mitosis goes haywire, which is how it spreads.
“We learned that by studying cancer cells in culture,” Defler said. He grinned and spun to face the board, where he wrote two words in enormous print: HENRIETTA LACKS.
Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.
“Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions—if not billions—of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice.
Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.
“HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said.
Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.
As the other students filed out of the room, I sat thinking, That’s it? That’s all we get? There has to be more to the story.
I followed Defler to his office.
“Where was she from?” I asked. “Did she know how important her cells were? Did she have any children?”
“I wish I could tell you,” he said, “but no one knows anything about her.”
After class, I ran home and threw myself onto my bed with my biology textbook. I looked up “cell culture” in the index, and there she was, a small parenthetical:
In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal.” A striking example is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.)

That was it. I looked up HeLa in my parents’ encyclopedia, then my dictionary: No Henrietta.
As I graduated from high school and worked my way through college toward a biology degree, HeLa cells were omnipresent. I heard about them in histology, neurology, pathology; I used them in experiments on how neighboring cells communicate. But after Mr. Defler, no one mentioned Henrietta.
When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.
Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henrietta’s husband saying, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.” Jet said the family was angry—angry that Henrietta’s cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said, “Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”
The articles all ran photos of Henrietta’s family: her oldest son sitting at his dining room table in Baltimore, looking at a genetics textbook. Her middle son in military uniform, smiling and holding a baby. But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. Except Deborah. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. She’s twenty-six years old and beautiful, with short brown hair and catlike eyes. But those eyes glare at the camera, hard and serious. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, yet at that point she’d been dead for twenty-five years.
All of the stories mentioned that scientists had begun doing research on Henrietta’s children, but the Lackses didn’t seem to know what that research was for. They said they were being tested to see if they had the cancer that killed Henrietta, but according to the reporters, scientists were studying the Lacks family to learn more about Henrietta’s cells. The stories quoted her son Lawrence, who wanted to know if the immortality of his mother’s cells meant that he might live forever too. But one member of the family remained voiceless: Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.
As I worked my way through graduate school studying writing, I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story. At one point I even called directory assistance in Baltimore looking for Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, but he wasn’t listed. I had the idea that I’d write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came from—someone’s daughter, wife, and mother.
I couldn’t have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decadelong adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. While trying to make sense of the history of cell culture and the complicated ethical debate surrounding the use of human tissues in research, I’d be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall both physically and metaphorically, and I’d eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism. I did eventually meet Deborah, who would turn out to be one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known. We’d form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine.
Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant; Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South. I tended to leave the room when religion came up in conversation because it made me uncomfortable; Deborah’s family tended toward preaching, faith healings, and sometimes voodoo. She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students. I was a science journalist who referred to all things supernatural as “woo-woo stuff”; Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its paths. Including me.
“How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing this book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.
The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.


Excerpted from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Copyright © 2010 by Rebecca Skloot. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Woman in the Photograph 1

Deborah's Voice 9

Pt. 1 Life

1 The Exam ... 1951 13

2 Clover ... 1920-1942 18

3 Diagnosis and Treatment ... 1951 27

4 The Birth of HeLa ... 1951 34

5 "Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside" ... 1951 42

6 "Lady's on the Phone" ... 1999 49

7 The Death and Life of Cell Culture ... 1951 56

8 "A Miserable Specimen" ... 1951 63

9 Turner Station ... 1999 67

10 The Other Side of the Tracks ... 1999 77

11 "The Devil of Pain Itself" ... 1951 83

Pt. 2 Death

12 The Storm ... 1951 89

13 The HeLa Factory ... 1951-1953 93

14 Helen Lane ... 1953-1954 105

15 "Too Young to Remember" ... 1951-1965 110

16 "Spending Eternity in the Same Place" ... 1999 118

17 Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable ... 1954-1966 127

18 "Strangest Hybrid" ... 1960-1966 137

19 "The Most Critical Time on This Earth Is Now" ... 1966-1973 144

20 The HeLa Bomb 1966 152

21 Night Doctors 2000 158

22 "The Fame She So Richly Deserves" ... 1970-1973 170

Pt. 3 Immortality

23 "It's Alive" ... 1973-1974 179

24 "Least They Can Do" ... 1975 191

25 "Who Told You You Could Sell My Spleen?" ... 1976-1988 199

26 Breach of Privacy ... 1980-1985 207

27 The Secret of Immortality ... 1984-1995 212

28 After London ... 1996-1999 218

29 A Village of Henriettas ... 2000 232

30 Zakariyya ... 2000 241

31 Hela, Goddess of Death ... 2000-2001 250

32 "All That's My Mother" ... 2001 259

33 The Hospital for the Negro Insane ... 2001 268

34 The Medical Records ... 2001 279

35 Soul Cleansing ... 2001 286

36 Heavenly Bodies ... 2001 294

37 "Nothing to Be Scared About" ... 2001 297

38 The Long Road to Clover ... 2009 305

Where They Are Now311

Afterword 315

Acknowledgments 329

Notes 338

Index 359

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Reading Group Guide

1. On page xiii, Rebecca Skloot states “This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated.” Consider the process Skloot went through to verify dialogue, recreate scenes, and establish facts. Imagine trying to re-create scenes such as when Henrietta discovered her tumor (page 15). What does Skloot say on pages xiii–xiv and in the notes section (page 346) about how she did this?

2. One of Henrietta’s relatives said to Skloot, “If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest” (page xiii). Throughout, Skloot is true to the dialect in which people spoke to her: the Lackses speak in a heavy Southern accent, and Lengauer and Hsu speak as non-native English speakers. What impact did the decision to maintain speech authenticity have on the story?

3. As much as this book is about Henrietta Lacks, it is also about Deborah learning of the mother she barely knew, while also finding out the truth about her sister, Elsie. Imagine discovering similar information about one of your family members. How would you react? What questions would you ask?

4. In a review for the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes, “Ms. Skloot is a memorable character herself. She never intrudes on the narrative, but she takes us along with her on her reporting.” How would the story have been different if she had not been a part of it? What do you think would have happened to scenes like the faith healing on page 289? Are there other scenes you can think of where her presence made a difference? Why do you think she decided to include herself in the story?

5.  Deborah shares her mother’s medical records with Skloot, but is adamant that she not copy everything. On page 284 Deborah says, “Everybody in the world got her cells, only thing we got of our mother is just them records and her Bible.” Discuss the deeper meaning behind this sentence. Think not only of her words, but also of the physical reaction she was having to delving into her mother’s and sister’s medical histories. If you were in Deborah’s situation, how would you react to someone wanting to look into your mother’s medical records?

6. This is a story with many layers. Though it’s not told chronologically, it is divided into three sections. Discuss the significance of the titles given to each part: Life, Death, and Immortality. How would the story have been different if it were told chronologically?

7. As a journalist, Skloot is careful to present the encounter between the Lacks family and the world of medicine without taking sides. Since readers bring their own experiences and opinions to the text, some may feel she took the scientists’ side, while others may feel she took the family’s side. What are your feelings about this? Does your opinion fall on one side or the other, or somewhere in the middle, and why?

8. Henrietta signed a consent form that said, “I hereby give consent to the staff of The Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform any operative procedures and under any anaesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of: ________” (page 31). Based on this statement, do you believe TeLinde and Gey had the right to obtain a sample from her cervix to use in their research? What information would they have had to give her for Henrietta to give informed consent? Do you think Henrietta would have given explicit consent to have a tissue sample used in medical research if she had been given all the information? Do you always thoroughly read consent forms before signing them?

9. In 1976, when Mike Rogers’s Rolling Stone article was printed, many viewed it as a story about race (see page 197 for reference). How do you think public interpretation might have been different if the piece had been published at the time of Henrietta’s death in 1951? How is this different from the way her story is being interpreted today? How do you think Henrietta’s experiences with the medical system would have been different had she been a white woman? What about Elsie’s fate?

10. Consider Deborah’s comment on page 276: “Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.” Is it possible to approach history from an objective point of view? If so, how and why is this important, especially in the context of Henrietta’s story?

11. Deborah says, “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” (page 9). Should the family be financially compensated for the HeLa cells? If so, who do you believe that money should come from? Do you feel the Lackses deserve health insurance even though they can’t afford it? How would you respond if you were in their situation?

12. Dr. McKusick directed Susan Hsu to contact Henrietta’s children for blood samples to further HeLa research; neither McKusick nor Hsu tried to get informed consent for this research. Discuss whether or not you feel this request was ethical. Further, think about John Moore and the patent that had been filed without his consent on his cells called “Mo” (page 201). How do you feel about the Supreme Court of California ruling that states when tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes?

13. Religious faith and scientific understanding, while often at odds with each other, play important roles in the lives of the Lacks family. How does religious faith help frame the Lacks’ response to and interpretation of the scientific information they receive about HeLa? How does Skloot’s attitude towards religious faith and science evolve as a result of her relationship with the Lackses?

14. On page 261, Deborah and Zakariyya visit Lengauer’s lab and see the cells for the first time. How is their interaction with Lengauer different from the previous interactions the family had with representatives of Johns Hopkins? Why do you think it is so different? What does the way Deborah and Zakariyya interact with their mother’s cells tell you about their feelings for her?

15. Reflect upon Henrietta’s life: What challenges did she and her family face? What do you think their greatest strengths were? Consider the progression of Henrietta’s cancer in the last eight months between her diagnosis and death. How did she face death? What do you think that says about the type of person she was?

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 2526 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A balanced, fascinating, beautifully written story about the first and still most important human "cell line" used in research

    When I started reading this story, I did not know what to expect. I am a biologist and, though I do not work extensively on human studies (I study mostly bacteria) I have heard and read 100s of scientific studies that were based on work on "HeLa" cells. These cells are literally everywhere in research facilities. But other than on rare occasions, there is rarely much discussion of the person behind these cells (or in fact, behind any cells used in research). I started the book with a bit of trepidation because it would have been easy for the author, Rebecca Skloot to sensationalize the history of the person behind these cells.

    But I was wonderfully surprised once I started reading the book (and in fact, could not put it down). First, the book is incredibly well written and crafted - weaving together three (or more) threads: the life of Henrietta Lacks, the obsession of the author with the story of HeLa, and the science behind human cell line research.

    Second, and perhaps more important to me, the book is incredibly well balanced in telling the story. For example, it would have been easy for Skloot to vilify the scientists at Johns Hopkins who isolated the cell line and then continued to work on it as well as related topics. (I note, I know some of these people as I used to have an Adjunct Appointment at Johns Hopkins). But in fact, Skloot is meticulously careful about researching the facts behind the story and in trying to explain what happened in the context of the times (e.g., she does a good job of describing how concepts of "informed consent" have changed over time). Instead of simply portraying scientists as evil or blaming them for "stealing" HeLa cells, Skloot portrays scientists as they really are - frequently well intentioned but a bit naive at times about the repercussions of what they are doing. (I note, Skloot does not try to sugarcoat scientists or any others in the book either - when scientists clearly erred this is described. But what I really like about the portrayal is that the portrayals of the Lacks family, of scientists, and of others, is done without any excessive judging. She lets the readers come to their own decisions about whether what people did was good or bad or in between. In this way, the book is nuanced and is really a history of science book.

    Finally, I think it is worth pointing out that this book is incredibly timely. As technology has advanced it is now becoming possible to determine the entire genetic makeup of individual people - and soon this will be possible at such a low cost that many people will have this done. In addition, medical research is accelerating at a dizzying pace - with many large scale studies being done involving samples from 100s-1000s of people. These studies have the potential to revolutionize medicine. But it is going to be very important for the scientists involved and for society in general to continue to think about the issues associated with "sharing" information and samples. The HeLa book is an important addition to this discussion and is written in such a way that just about anyone can read and understand it.

    273 out of 281 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2010

    An historic work of science and the human heart, Skloot brings to life the story that needed to be told, even if you *think* you may know the HeLa story. A moving and gripping read for students, scientists, and anyone concerned with social justice

    I read this book as a scientist whose PhD thesis work 20 years ago almost entirely made use of HeLa cells. HeLa cells were central to my first paper from my independent laboratory and fueled my first major research grant from the American Cancer Society. I say this because I thought I was a HeLa expert. Rebecca Skloot has taught me that I knew only a small fraction of the story that brought to me a gift that launched my scientific career.

    This book is remarkable in that it is a painstakingly-documented and fact-checked account of science, ethics, and history, yet reads smoothly and engagingly as well to my colleagues with no background in science. Most importantly, Skloot brings to us the uncomfortable history of medical injustices to the African-American community that extends back to slave ships and today fuels the relative reticence of blacks to participate in clinical trials. The story is so touching and moved my heart to experience the torment shared by the Lacks family to the triumph and education of the Lacks family about the very real contributions of their matriarch's gift to science and humanity.

    A native of New Jersey who has spent a third of his life in the American South, I am still often called a Yankee here. Skloot's book shares with the rest of the country and the world the culture and experience of life in the Jim Crow South and the place religion holds for a people who were sustained by their faith from slavery through struggles that continue today. My white privilege is real.

    As for the cells themselves, yes, yes, Ms. Lacks did not give up her tumor tissue because she intended for the cells to be propagated and studied worldwide - her tissue was taken to the lab unknowingly and without consent as was done then with hundreds of patients at Johns Hopkins. But one has to read the Skloot book to also appreciate that researchers came back to the Lacks family 20 years later for tissue samples without compassion or an appreciation for the communication required to adequately inform the family about their motivations.

    Skloot teaches us that the cultivation of the first immortalized human cell line opened the door to understanding how this could be done for more intractable cells in culture. She stimulated me to go back and read some of the 1950s papers by pioneers like Ted Puck, Richard Ham, and Harry Eagle on the requirements for mammalian cell growth in vitro that form the basis of techniques used in cancer and viral research laboratories worldwide. Many of these papers using HeLa cells appeared in the most prominent journals of then and today: Science, Nature, and the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

    But step back for a moment as humans who stand on the shoulders of our forebearers: how can you look back on the breadth of discoveries enabled by the availability of HeLa cells and not feel some debt of gratitude toward this woman? How can one not feel compelled to honor her suffering and that of her family? For me, that is reason enough for this story to be told with the finesse and reverence Skloot so gently shares herein, aided by the respect that she earned from the Lacks family.

    For those posting based upon perceptions or news accounts, I strongly encourage you to read the entire text even if you think you know the whole story. I assure you: you do not. We are indebted to Rebecca for her tenacious work over the last ten years to fulfill a curiosity in a woman she discovered 20 years ago in high school.

    106 out of 111 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 7, 2010

    I Also Recommend:


    This is an amazing, fascinating true story about a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s who became ill with cervical cancer. Her cells were taken from her body during treatment and harvested for medical research. They took two samples of the cells from her uterus. These Hela cells mass produced and have become immortal.Years of disinterest or misinformation kept the truth from Henrietta's family and the world. This book is a document in history and the extent the Lacks' have gone through to get the truth told about their mother. This book was obviously well researched, not just in the history but the personal aspect was engaging and interesting. Henrietta Lacks is a miracle. She helped find numerous vaccines and enabled the research and discovery of some of medical treatment after she was long gone.

    Rebecca Skloot takes readers through the life of Henrietta Lacks, well beyond her years on this earth. We learn of her children, their children, and so on and also the history of scientific progress. Skloot weaves the human interest story of the Lackses with the historical progress of research, DNA, chromosomes and cells. This story is fascinating, inspiring and heartbreaking. I highly recommend! A treasure!

    62 out of 67 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2010

    This book should be required reading for medical and graduate students

    I received a copy of Rebecca Skloot's new book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks before Christmas. I read it while my family and I traveled to Phoenix and have thought about it almost every day since. his is, without a doubt, the single best piece of non-fiction I have ever read. It is one of the most important stories of the last 100 years and should be required reading for every scientist and physician-in-training.

    In short, I loved it and consider myself among Rebecca Skloot's biggest fans.

    When I first wrote about this book on my blog, I received comments from people who were upset that Rebecca Skloot might be suggesting that we stop using HeLa cells. They were concerned that Rebecca Skloot's book is simply another story of African American injustice. Neither of these as individual themes do the book justice. The most important message of the book is the reminder that, as scientists, we have the responsibility to be aware of the potential for people to become invisible in research. We all have the potential to be blinded by our own self-interests and the social, educational, and economic constructs that shape us. However, I would argue that, even more than in medicine, we have the responsibility to be entirely transparent with our research participants. We have a responsibility to ensure that participants understand the consequences of what we do, especially because they derive no immediate benefit. We don't necessarily cure them or heal them. This isn't easy and many of us fail at some point in our careers, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

    Most of us view cells as purely structural components, non-sentient and without feeling. However, imagine having an elementary education with no concept of what a cell is, and learning that a piece of your loved one had been taken, was alive, and was being experimented on. Imagine receiving a call from people with apparent social authority and hearing that they wanted to test your children after your wife died of a devastating illness. It's easy to see how the Lacks family would think they were being tested for cancer, and how it would terrify them when they didn't receive the results they thought researchers would return to them with. It doesn't matter what you know the cell to be. What matters is how they perceived them and that perception caused them pain.

    The lesson that Henrietta Lacks teaches us is as pertinent today as it was in 1951 when her cells were taken. Our actions, especially when we are blinded to cultural, economic, spiritual, and social differences between us and the people we use in research, have the potential to have devastating and lasting consequences. In that sense, we have a duty to understand our history as researchers in an effort to prevent the future abuse of research participants and their families.

    It's impossible to read about Henrietta Lacks without considering how racism and economics shaped the story. However, it's dangerous to assume that because social climates evolve, this could never happen again

    48 out of 53 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting Story Poorly Reported

    I was really looking forward to this book. I have served on IRB for many years and am profoundly interested in protecting patient rights and confidentiality. But this is not the book I felt it should be. I realize that Rebecca Skloot is telling the story she wants to tell, but it is in many ways barely coherent.

    In the beginning of the book she uses both first person and second person in the same sentence when a simpler way would serve her better. She is quoting individuals in conversations that were 20 years earlier and which she was not privy to. I believe many of her quotes began to appear as 'piling on' the protaganists poor education when this had already been characterized more than adequately.

    Overall I found the writing very poor and lacking in clarity. I just wanted to warn any readers who value good language construction and clarity that they might become aggravated by this book.

    Also, I don't believe the author's choice of style in telling this story serves any of the interests involved.

    37 out of 130 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 20, 2010

    Biology has a human side

    I am always looking for books that would be something to recommend to my students in my college classes that pull in the human side of how biology functions in their lives. This is one of those perfect examples of how science functions in human society.

    The idea that a human can be reduced to the title of a cell line, as in HeLa, is a disturbing side of the life sciences. I want my students to understand that biology has so many benefits for us, but that the power of science should be both simultaneously embraced and examined with suspicion. We need to see the human side of what we do in science, and this book by Rebecca Skloot has that power. She has shown us that we need the ability to learn about how we as humans function and eventually become dysfunctional as our systems fail through a myriad of events that are part of normal biological functioning. And that science attempts to find ways to stop the failings of our body. But sometimes the method does not always reflect positively on how we conduct science in our society.

    It is not possible to erase all the injustice in the system, but we need to remember the human face associated with the science of medicine. We want to do well by all involved, and this book opens a great dialogue on what lies ahead.

    24 out of 28 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 1, 2011

    I Also Recommend:


    This is the most fascinating true story! The author, Rebecca Skloot, was 27 when she first started covering the HeLa story, and guided us through the unbelievable events that followed over 50 years as she built a relationship with Henrietta's descendants. She restores a measure of dignity to the Lacks family who spent decades knowing little of the amazing contributions made by the cells that were taken, without consent, from Mrs. Lacks before her death from cervical cancer in 1951. This changed the course of history. This is a story worth keeping on your library shelf forever.

    23 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2010

    Good, but hardly can't-put-down reading.

    After reading the book review in the NY Times, I *knew* this would be the first eBook I would ever download. I'm no scientist, but I am a scholar and enjoy well-researched historical/scientific books such as these. I was captivated during the first few chapters, but eventually and sadly lost interest.

    The book itself tells parallel stories - one of the woman behind the cells, one of the cells itself, and one of the family left behind. While you can sense the frustration in the Lacks family, you can't help but feel like *no one* has the right to claim 100% ownership of the cells. Key to this statement I'm making is the fact that HeLa cells weren't Henrietta's *intrinsic* healthy cells, but rather her CANCER cells. Who in their right mind would want to look at the cells that viciously killed your mother, hug them and hold them dear? I certainly wouldn't. The only reason I would hold such a malignant entity dear is if I saw dollar signs dancing behind them, as it seems disturbingly clear that the Lacks family did.

    Sure, HeLa (malignant or not) contributed so much to the world. That cannot be contested. But ONLY because the scientists contributed infinite capital to make them survive. The Lackses can claim ownership all they want, but without the scientists, all their mothers cells would have been long gone. No vaccines, no research projects, no nothing. It's incredulous that they still consider them "stolen".

    In the end, a well-research, well-thought out book and fitting bibliography to a woman oft forgotten, but nothing I'd ever read again.

    20 out of 47 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 12, 2010

    Very readable

    I am thoroughly enjoying this book about someone I have never heard of but whom the world has greatly benefited from. This book is not a cut and dry documentary of cell research, but has inspired me to research into the subject a little further. I had heard about the horror stories of human research done without the subjects consent such as the Tuskegee Experiment and know of the African-American distrust of medicine because of it. This is the story of a woman's cells that helped create so-called modern miracles but her children to this day do not understand what was done with those cells or why. Some doctors are very good and talking down to the less educated and have an "I know what is best" attitude toward their patients in general, and while some may find it hard to believe that a physician would leave the patient and family in the dark, I know it is not that far-fetched, "just sign this paperwork" is something I have experienced myself. So while this book may not be an
    "unbiased" presentation of the facts, it is very enjoyable and could spark interest in science amongst young and old.

    17 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Wonderful book, but AVOID THE E-BOOK

    This is written like "can't put it down fiction". So much great history of cell culture, medicine and research, civil rights and patients rights, African American culture. Henrietta Lacks and her family are in my heart.
    FYI - some of the chapters in the e-book end in mid-sentence. I hate to miss a single word of this. Better get a paper copy and be able to read the whole amazing book.

    16 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2010

    The best non-fiction book I've read in years; it deserves the same immortal status as the cells it describes

    This is without question the best non-fiction book I've read in years. Skloot's debut is thrilling, original and refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. Equal parts popular science, historical biography and detective novel, it reads as evocatively as any work of fiction.

    Skloot repeatedly appears as a character in her own book, narrating her journey from first hearing about HeLa cells in a classroom to her attempts to contact and support the Lacks family. Her narration reveals the trials that the Lacks family have undergone since Henrietta's cells went global, and the sheer amount of trust it took to uncover the details of this story.

    But this is really a book about three heroines - the two whose names grace the cover and Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks. Skloot's personal mission to tell this story and Deborah's quest to know about her mother's life and legacy are central parts of Henrietta's story and they form some of the book's most compelling segments.

    I write this review as someone who isn't typically a fan of historical non-fiction. Particularly in popular science, I often find descriptions of researchers to be distracting attempts at shoehorning in a human element that is out of keeping with the rest of the book. Not so here - this work has the most human of stories at its core, and never deviates from that important, and often heartbreaking, humanity. When science appears, it does so effortlessly, with explanations of cell anatomy or techniques like "fluorescence in situ hybridization" seamlessly worked into descriptions of the coloured wards of Johns Hopkins hospital to Lacks's hometown of Clover, Virginia.

    Skloot's prose is witty, lyrical, economical and authoritative. But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a comfortable read. Learning about Henrietta's devastating radiation treatments, the history of experiments on black Americans and the events in the book's conclusion are heart-rending. But the story is uplifting too, particularly in a stand-out chapter where Henrietta's children, Deborah and Zakariyya, visit a cancer researcher to see their mother's cells under a microscope.

    All of this is to be expected of a book that refuses to shy away from tackling important themes - the interplay between science and ethics, the question of who owns our bodies, and the history of racism in the US. Actually considering these issues seems to be too much for some people, like the anonymous reviewer who appears to be attacking a straw-man version of the book. Those who actually make the effort to read the book and heart the story will be rewarded for it.

    For all its grand scope, skilful writing and touching compassion, there is one simple element that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks an instant classic - this is one of those stories that genuinely needed to be told. By right, it will achieve the same immortal status as the cells it describes.

    16 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2010

    Disappointed by this Biased Telling

    This book, although well written and researched, was too biased for my liking. The emphasis on money, due to the family of Henrietta Lacks, was too central. The amount of time the author spent researching with the Lacks family has driven her text and allowed science to become the villain. The use of Henrietta Lacks' cells, in current research endeavors, should be seen as an opportunity for future patients to avoid the suffering she endured.

    14 out of 35 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Amazing story

    Harry S. Truman was President in 1951 when Henrietta Lacks died, but her cells and her legacy live on today. Known for years only as HeLa, the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture that continue to grow today. They have been and still are a vital medical research tool. For most of the past 60 years, scientists never even knew the real name of the woman whose cells sparked a spate of research in both the medical and pharmaceutical fields.

    A poor, unassuming and uneducated woman, Mrs. Lacks was treated in the Colored Only Section of Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Her husband and family never even understood just what lived on after her death; believing that a part of Henrietta had actually been kept alive. Her cells were used for wide ranging medical research over decades including polio research in the '50s, the effects of the Atom bomb, cloning, gene mapping and testing for the HPV (papilloma virus) vaccine, the first ever cancer vaccine that was approved in 2006, just to name a few.

    Add the civil rights struggle to this blend of science and personal information about Mrs. Lacks in Ms. Skloot's fascinating book. The very real human debate in the book centers on the untold millions made from HeLa research and the abject poverty her family faced. Her children were continually tested by researchers, even as they continued to live in poverty and ironically, without medical insurance. Mrs. Lack's legacy is heroic on so many levels, yet she rested for decades in an unmarked grave in her hometown.

    Ms. Skloot has written an amazing and thought provoking book that I thoroughly enjoyed and I highly recommend THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. Lynn Kimmerle

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010


    Well written, intimate and unbiased. It will make you think hard about research, ethics and the mytery of life. Bravo "Miss Rebecca"! This should be required reading for any ethics class or health care program

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 18, 2010

    must read for everyone

    The story, this book tells is amazing, it brought me both joy and sadness. It confirms the human spirit lives on long after we do. It is an easy read that will touch your heart. It will leave you grateful to Henrietta and proud to have had a small chance to see into her life. I found the book well written and easy to get to know the people involved, it allowed you to appreciate their lives and the hardships they had. I finished the book loving Henrietta Lacks, for her strength, hardships, sense of family, and mostly as an American hero. This book is a must read.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 16, 2010

    What an amazing story!

    When I heard about this book on The New York Times, I knew I had to read it. I am a scientist that works at a cancer hospital and it seemed like a very intriguing book to me. After I was done, I realized it was one of the greatest science non-fiction books I had ever read.

    My whole job revolves around informed consent, which is mentioned quite frequently in the book. If Henrietta's cells were never taken without her knowledge, cancer research might not have been as advanced as it is today. I credit Henrietta for my job.

    I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn a good history lesson as well as several lessons on science, cancer, and cells. You will walk away touched by her family's story as well as in awe by the sheer magnitude of what the HeLa cells have meant to the science world. You'll understand the hardship and sacrifices that occurred in order for us to treat cancer today. It wasn't pleasant the way they treated people in the 50's and 60's but the product is undeniable.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010


    If it were possible to give a book more than five stars this one would deserve more. I'm not generally a fan of non-fiction as it can often be a bit on the dull side. This book, this book was nothing short of extraordinary. Parts were breathtaking in the way they forced you to see our own history, parts were so full of emotion all you could do was wipe your tears as your heart broke, all of it leaves you forever changed in the ways you will view medicine, privacy, and your own healthcare decisions. More than anything else though you will find yourself incredibly thankful to all those who were the unseen, unknown sacrifices that resulted in so many medical advances.

    As I sat beside my husband's hospital bed today holding the finished book to my heart I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around the Lacks family and say "Thank you."

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Read

    I really enjoyed this book. I work in medical research, and as a previous poster said, this should be required reading for everyone that works in the biomedical sciences.

    My only complaint is that I tried to read this on my nook, and it's not properly formatted for the device. Every few pages a few lines get cut off, and you need to adjust between font sizes to get all the text. I finally read it on the e-reader on my laptop. If you want the book, get the hardcopy, or plan on reading it on a PC based e-reader.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not fluff..

    I usually read fluff--light mysteries or comedy stuff. Why in heck did I buy a book about human cells? I asked myself that when I first started reading this book. Then the book grabbed me. Yes, it's about the cells taken from a woman's malignant tumor, and it's about how they lived in labratories when all other cells before had died (it was 1951--these were the first cells to survive out of the body for any length of time). The cells multiplied, even after the woman was long dead. The book tells how the cells had been experimented on, the places they'd traveled (the moon for one), and the diseases they'd help cure. The book is also about the family of the woman and the author's struggle to find out what the heck happened: How the woman, Henrietta Lacks, had died; who she had been when she was alive, and how her family suffered because of her death and the mystery surrounding her death.

    The book isn't fluff, so it's a bit dryer than I'm used to, but I did read it to the end. I learned something about cells and about Ms Lacks' life and especially about her family. The author did a fantastic job of traveling around talking with the family, and traveling with Henrietta's daughter to try to learn Henrietta's medical history. I'd have said "to heck with it" if I'd been the one going though the ordeals of getting to know the family, but the author stuck with it, gaining an insight and affection for the struggling family of this woman.
    I'm glad I finished the book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 18, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Could not put it down!!

    This was an amazing book combining science and a person/family's personal story. I had never heard of these cells before even though I am a nurse. I really enjoyed the personal story of the writer and the family.
    I was surprised at how much this book interested me. Even though there was discussion of science it was not overwhelming or boring. This writer obviously researched this subject for many years before this book was published. I absolutely Loved it!!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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