#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly.”—Entertainment Weekly
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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, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, 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.
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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? 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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black American woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Her singularly fertile cells—scraped from a tumor before her death and cultured without her knowledge—spawned a cell line that has been instrumental in several great advances of the modern age. Meanwhile, her family remained in poverty. Rebecca Skloot narrates the true story of Lacks’ legacy with sensitivity and conviction, performing science journalism and playing the role of historical witness.
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.
A great read and the science is understandable.
This book is at the intersection of where science meets journalism. I wanted to read this book because I wanted to learn more about the woman behind the immortal cell line that changed the field of science for good. Without her, the field of cell culture that brought us many therapies, vaccines and understanding of the human cell would not of been possible. What is even more interesting is t this woman who contributed significantly to science with her cervix cancerous cells is a Black woman. I wonder how many young black kids or teens or even young women would be interested in entering the science field if they knew that one of the cornerstone of science discoveries is a cell culture coming from a Black woman. I know it would of motivated me more to be a researcher. The author herself was animated enough by this discovery in her high school class to have the motivation to do a decade’s research with the Lacks family, particularly Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter to discover the story behind this woman, her mother. While the family has not benefited from the HELa cells financially and with recognition, their impact into our lives with therapies we use everyday is their legacy to science. Also they come from a time where informed consent was not yet provided into law. It makes me question the ethics behind our medical records and what rights do people have for their tissue coming from their bodies. It also make me question does science have a boundary of ethics for different races? I’m glad I read the book. I will recommend it to my students in the Fall who want to learn about ethics surrounding biomedical research.
This was the most important thing l have ever heard about. I could not stop reading it. The knowledge it contains is unbelievable. Thank you for education in the use of my cells alone.
Great book. I think everyone should read it.