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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.

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  • 3 person found this review helpful

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    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    Thought provoking bioethics and history-of-science that reads easily. Strongly recommended. Fascinating.

  • 2 person found this review helpful

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    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.

  • 1 person found this review helpful

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    Amazing read!

    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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    A great read!

    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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    A great story of one inspirational family

    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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