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Synopsis

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? 
          
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.


From the Hardcover edition.

Book Reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Average rating
4.2 / 5
The Incredible Life of Henrietta Lacks
September 25th, 2015
Loved it! Anamazing story of one woman's unknowing contribution to science, as well as her family's connection to it.
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1 review
Immortal life of henrietta lacks
July 11th, 2015
Loved it. A great story about a real life situation which effects us all. Do we really know even today what happens when we have a biopsy done!!! makes you think more about science and research. Thank you herietta lacks for your cell contribution
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
A great read!
January 3rd, 2015
Another book I read as a book club choice and I truly enjoyed it while at the same time felt pity for Henrietta and her family. Even though technically nothing was done wrong, I think medical science owes her family so much more. A great read.
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
A great story of one inspirational family
October 31st, 2014
This story is moving, horrifying and eye-opening. Everyone should know the life of Henrietta Lacks. She changed the medical community without even knowing. Her family were horribly mistreated and I hope their stories are heard.
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1 review
HeLa Cells
May 13th, 2014
good read on the origin of HeLa cells
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1 review
OMG!!
April 3rd, 2014
It's Super sad that she had Cervical Cancer, and I just wish her death meant a lot more than I got credit for.
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1 review
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Bank
March 27th, 2014
Awesome. Who knew?
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1 review
Amazing
February 13th, 2014
Crazy to think we don't owe the rights to ourselves
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
January 24th, 2014
Great book. So interesting to read non-fiction that is so well written. Very interesting story.
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1 review
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
January 5th, 2014
This book was amazing wish there was word on a movie. I highly recommend.
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
September 30th, 2013
The book is very informative about cell research; it is evident the author has done her homework. The biomedical ethics of this issue are still being resolved, and the material in the book will cause one to think about the situation. The author also portrays the human perspective of cell research in a way not previously shown. Recommended reading.
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1 review
September 14th, 2013
As someone who worked in a medical laboratory all my life, I found this to be a fascinating and disturbing story. I never worked directly with Hela cells, but I am sure my work benefitted from them. It was saddening to learn that Henrietta and her kin were not involved in the process of the development of her cells.If they had been "in the loop" they may have appreciated more what these cells meant to the world of research, and as her daughter did in the end, taken a certain pride in that. I did find the story a tad repetitive for my liking, and it definitely went on too long.
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
Great Book
August 16th, 2013
This is an extremely informational and comedic book about a woman who impacted all of our lives, but still goes by unnoticed.
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1 review
3 of 3 people found this helpful
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
June 23rd, 2013
Thought provoking bioethics and history-of-science that reads easily. Strongly recommended. Fascinating.
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
Well researched. Beautifully written
June 18th, 2013
This book reads like a novel. It is a gripping and masterfully told story of a woman, her family, the science of cell culture and the ethics of informed consent. These complex subjects are skillfully discussed and explained. The author carefully presents all sides to allow the reader thoughtful introspection and appreciation of our right to information.
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
April 1st, 2013
Absolutely amazing and thought provoking book I have ever read from race relations, property rights concerning our bodies and the moral and ethical question regarding all of this.
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1 review
1 person found this helpful
Amazing read!
January 3rd, 2013
Skloot humanizes medical terminology and brings light to the story of a woman who has touched more lives than most realize. This book is a sobering reminder that the scientific community has standards for a reason and that our biological rights are just as important as any other civil right.
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1 review

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