The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  • 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.

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    By Rebecca Skloot

    Paperback: 400 pages

  • “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 writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.” —Wired.com
    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.”
    Nature
    “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, Salon.com
    “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



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