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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Paperback – March 8, 2011


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 381 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (March 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400052181
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3,549 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: From a single, abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life is sustained in laboratories and in memory. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive--even thrive--in the lab. Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution--and her cells' strange survival--left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. For a decade, Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories? --Tom Nissley


Amazon Exclusive: Jad Abumrad Reviews The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Jad Abumrad is host and creator of the public radio hit Radiolab, now in its seventh season and reaching over a million people monthly. Radiolab combines cutting-edge production with a philosophical approach to big ideas in science and beyond, and an inventive method of storytelling. Abumrad has won numerous awards, including a National Headliner Award in Radio and an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science Journalism Award. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

Honestly, I can't imagine a better tale.

A detective story that's at once mythically large and painfully intimate.

Just the simple facts are hard to believe: that in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but pieces of the tumor that killed her--taken without her knowledge or consent--live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science--leading to breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things). All of which is to say: the science end of this story is enough to blow one's mind right out of one's face.

But what's truly remarkable about Rebecca Skloot's book is that we also get the rest of the story, the part that could have easily remained hidden had she not spent ten years unearthing it: Who was Henrietta Lacks? How did she live? How she did die? Did her family know that she'd become, in some sense, immortal, and how did that affect them? These are crucial questions, because science should never forget the people who gave it life. And so, what unfolds is not only a reporting tour de force but also a very entertaining account of Henrietta, her ancestors, her cells and the scientists who grew them.

The book ultimately channels its journey of discovery though Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother, and who dreamt of one day being a scientist.

As Deborah Lacks and Skloot search for answers, we're bounced effortlessly from the tiny tobacco-farming Virginia hamlet of Henrietta's childhood to modern-day Baltimore, where Henrietta's family remains. Along the way, a series of unforgettable juxtapositions: cell culturing bumps into faith healings, cutting edge medicine collides with the dark truth that Henrietta's family can't afford the health insurance to care for diseases their mother's cells have helped to cure.

Rebecca Skloot tells the story with great sensitivity, urgency and, in the end, damn fine writing. I highly recommend this book. --Jad Abumrad


Look Inside The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Click on thumbnails for larger images

Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.
Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s older daughter, about five years before she was committed to Crownsville State Hospital, with a diagnosis of “idiocy.”
Deborah Lacks at about age four.
The home-house where Henrietta was raised, a four-room log cabin in Clover, Virginia, that once served as slave quarters. (1999)
Main Street in downtown Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta was raised, circa 1930s.


Margaret Gey and Minnie, a lab technician, in the Gey lab at Hopkins, circa 1951.
Deborah with her children, LaTonya and Alfred, and her second husband, James Pullum, in the mid-1980s.
In 2001, Deborah developed a severe case of hives after learning upsetting new information about her mother and sister.
Deborah and her cousin Gary Lacks standing in front of drying tobacco, 2001.
The Lacks family in 2009.


--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

More About the Author

Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR's Radiolab and PBS's NOVA scienceNOW, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine and guest editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011. She is a former Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle and has taught creative nonfiction and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. Her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than ten years to research and write, and became an instant New York Times bestseller. She has been featured on numerous television shows, including CBS Sunday Morning and The Colbert Report. Her book has received widespread critical acclaim, with reviews appearing in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Science, Entertainment Weekly, People, and many others. It won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and was named The Best Book of 2010 by Amazon.com, and a Best Book of the Year by Entertainment Weekly; O, The Oprah Magazine; The New York Times; Washington Post; US News & World Report; and numerous others.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is being translated into more than twenty languages, and adapted into a young adult book, and an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot lives in Chicago but regularly abandons city life to write in the hills of West Virginia, where she tends to find stray animals and bring them home. She travels extensively to speak about her book. For more information, visit RebeccaSkloot.com, where you will find book special features, including photos and videos, as well as her book tour schedule, and links to follow her and The Immortal Life on Twitter and Facebook.

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Customer Reviews

This book was very well written and informative.
Creed70
Rebecca Skloot did an amazing job of bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks, The Lacks Family, HeLa and medical research to life in great detail.
I. Jenkins
Great book about medical research, science, racism, morals and ethics.
JMV

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1,511 of 1,577 people found the following review helpful By EJ on February 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wow. This book should be required reading for scientists and students of life. The true story of Henrietta Lacks and her family has finally been told, beautifully, in this book. The book encompasses science, ethics, and the story of a family who was terribly wronged in the pursuit of scientific research. I could gush about this book for pages but I'll try first to hit the main points of why this book is so remarkable in list form for the sake of brevity:

1. The author clearly developed a strong relationship with the Lacks family, which was absolutely critical to ensuring the story was told accurately and with the respect to Henrietta Lacks that was so deeply deserved.

2. The storytelling is amazingly moving despite the need to convey a lot of scientific information. It reads like fiction.

3. Ms. Skloot's research into the science is impeccable.

4. The book is FAIR. It presents the unvarnished truth, obtained DIRECTLY from as many prinicpal people involved in the story as is humanly possible. It would have been easier to simplify the story into heroes vs. villians, but Ms. Skloot deftly handles all sides of the story.

For some detail: I have worked with HeLa cells in the past, but did not know even the barest information about the story of Henrietta Lacks until a few years ago. It simply was not common knowledge, until a few less ethical folks released her name and medical records to the public. This obviously should not have been done without the express permission of the Lacks family, which Ms. Skloot obtained. In the past, others have not been as ethical. The book covers Ms. Lacks' early life, how her cells came to be harvested, and what happened to both the cells and her family afterward.
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This is hand's down one of the best books I've read in years and I wish I could give it more stars. It is going to be difficult to capture exactly what makes this book so outstanding and so captivating, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

First of all I want to say I am STUNNED that this is the author's first book. She has poured ten years of her heart, soul, mind and her life in general in this book. What she has given birth to in that long period of labor is worthy of her sacrifice and honors Henrietta Lacks and her family.

Other reviews have given the outline of this amazing story. What I want to stress is that Ms. Skloot has navigated the difficult terrain of respecting Mrs. Lacks and her family, while still telling their story in a very intimate, thorough, factual manner. What readers may not know is that the Lacks family isn't just a "subject" that the author researched. This is a real family with real heartaches and real challenges whose lives she entered into for a very long season. The Lacks' family has truly benefitted from the author's involvement in their life and that is something I am very appreciative of. I believe that Ms. Skloot was able to give Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, a real sense of healing, deliverance, peace and identity that she had been searching for her whole life...that story alone would have made the book for me.

It would have been very easy for the author to come across as condescending or patronizing or possibly as being exploitive as she wrote about a family that is poor and uneducated.
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430 of 474 people found the following review helpful By G.I Gurdjieff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As I recall this book was categorized as CANCER, I believe it might be more aptly described as science based non-fiction. In the last two decades I've seen occasional news items alluding to human cells taken from a black woman in the 1950's that have been replicated millions of times. The cells are referred to as HeLa and on the face of it I wouldn't have thought there was much of a story behind the extraction of these cells and their use by the biomed industry. However, this book dispells that rather naive assumption completely and puts a name and a face, a family, and a story behind the contents of many petri dishes and slides. THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS explains how the cells were obtained, replicated, distributed, and used without informed consent of the owner and family by John Hopkins and how they benefitted mankind w/o compensation to the family. Author Skloot tells the story of a family victimized by socioeconomic conditions and racism that can't get fundamental things like health coverage while these cells make a lot of money for the health establishment. It is a disturbing read that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished. It may also make the reader take a long hard look at the need for standardized health care in our society among many other things.
The one thing that I found fascinating about this book is how Skloot managed to take a generally dry topic that might have been addressed in a scientific textbook and humanized it on a very personal level by developing a close relationship with Henrietta's family. The input received from the family took this book to a higher level and made it a very personsl story. From my perspective, it was very hard not to get involved with the Lacks family and not feel their sense of betrayal and loss.
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