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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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1,553 of 1,620 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified 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.

The contributions of HeLa cells to science are absolutely staggering and cannot be over-stated. The sections where the science was described were clear and accurate. With the story of Ms. Lacks' family interwoven, this book was fairly close to perfect. I found myself moved to tears several times because of the fate of the Lacks family and Henrietta's daughter's indomitable spirit. I do not think anyone but Ms. Skloot could have written this book. She worked with the family for over a decade in order to get the story right. This was critical, as the family had been wronged too many times in the past.

Thank you for this astounding work of art. I will be donating to the Henrietta Lacks foundation in honor of the entire family, and I hope many others will read the book and be similarly moved.
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635 of 679 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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. Instead the story is infused with compassion and patience as she not only takes the family along with her on a journey to understand their current situation and the ancestor whose life was so rich in legacy but poor in compensation; she educates the family in the process. I get the sense that the author grew to genuinely love Henrietta and her family. I am in awe of this level of commitment.

The author has managed to explain the complex scientific information in a way that anyone can comprehend and be fascinated by. The author's telling of the science alone and the journey of Henrietta's immortal cells (HeLa) would have made the book a worthy read in itself. Ms. Skloot and Henrietta captured me from page one all the way to the final page of the book. I read it in one pass and I didn't want it to end.

The author manages to beautifully tell multiple stories and develops each of those stories so well that you can't help but be consumed by the book. This is the story of Henrietta. It is the story of her sweet and determined daughter, Deborah. It is the story of the extended Lacks family and their history. It is a story of race/poverty/ignorance and people who take advantage of that unfortunate trifecta. It is a story about science and ethics. It is a story that should make each of us reflect on the sacrifices made by individual humans and animals that have allowed us to benefit so much from "modern" medicine. It is a story about hope and perseverance. It is a story about love and healing.

I cannot imagine a single person I know who wouldn't love this book and benefit from reading it. I will be purchasing the final copy of the book and am looking forward to reading the book again.

I am counting the days til Ms. Skloot writes another book and can't wait to attend one of her upcoming lectures. A fan is born!
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459 of 505 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine 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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104 of 118 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 18, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Equal parts history, psychological drama, expose and character study, Rebecca Skloot's gripping debut is a deeply affecting tour de force that effortlessly bridges the gap between science and the mainstream.

Her subject is the multilayered drama behind one of the most important--and in many ways, problematic--advances of modern medicine. Captivated by the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman whose cervical cancer cells (dubbed HeLa) were the first immortalized cells grown in culture and became ubiquitous in laboratories around the world, Skloot set out to learn more about the person whose unwitting "donation" of the cells transformed biomedical research in the last century. Her research ultimately spanned a decade and found her navigating (and to some extent, mediating) more than 50 years of rage over the white scientific establishment's cavalier mistreatment and exploitation of the poor, especially African Americans.

Skloot deftly weaves together an account of Lacks's short life (she died at age 31) and torturous death from an extremely aggressive form of cancer; the parallel narrative concerning her cells; and the sometimes harrowing, sometimes amusing chronicle of Skloots's own interactions with Lacks's surviving (and initially hostile and uncooperative) family members. Moving comfortably back and forth in time, the richly textured story that emerges brings into stark relief the human cost of scientific progress and leaves the reader grappling with many unanswered questions about the ethics of the scientific endeavor, past and present. While the goals of biomedical research may be noble, how they are achieved is not always honorable, particularly where commercialization of new technologies is at stake. Skloot offers a clear-eyed perspective, highlighting the brutal irony of a family whose matriarch was a pivotal figure in everything from the development of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine to AIDS research to cancer drugs, yet cannot afford the very medical care their mother's cells helped facilitate, with predictable consequences.

The LA Times book review section named Skloot one of its four "Faces to Watch in 2010," an honor that, based on "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is well-deserved.

Five stars--it was hard to put down this compelling, admirable and eminently readable book.
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52 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Rebecca Skloot's story of Henrietta Lacks and her cancerous HeLa cells is both a fascinating history and an engrossing work of art. The book combines sharp science writing with some of the best creative nonfiction techniques and a heartbreaking story. The result is a stunning portrayal of twentieth century medicine, science, race, and class like nothing I've ever read before.

Skloot skillfully interweaves the saga of a poor young black mother and her children with an elucidation of the almost primitive-seeming medical practices that were once customary, and the culturing and dissemination of the woman's cancer cells (unbeknownst to her or her relatives) around the world. This was a period when even paying patients were seldom if ever asked for consent and frequently experimented on without their knowledge. Skloot brings to life not only Henrietta's tragedy but also her own quest with Henrietta's daughter to find the woman behind the HeLa cells and the incredible accomplishments those cells have made possible. Just about all of us on the planet have benefited, while medical corporations have made billions and Henrietta's children received not one cent.

A disturbing and even haunting aspect of the situation is that the 'Immortal Life' involved here is not that of Henrietta's cells alone but rather of her cells overcome and transformed by the terribly aggressive cancer that killed her. That is what has lived on and been used in thousands of experiments and inadvertently contaminated other cells lines around the world, replicating so much times that one scientist estimated all the HeLa produced (laid end to end) could circle the earth more than five times.

As the author states in her opening, the history of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and the way the medical establishment treated her family raises critical questions about scientific research, ethics, race, and class. It's also a supremely engrossing story and one that taught me more about race in America, medical ethics, science, and what makes writing matter than anything I've read in years. Original in scope and presentation, personal, thought provoking, and even profound, this is the kind of nonfiction that rarely comes along.
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54 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Rebecca Skloot has written a book that certainly sounds like it could be science fiction, but in truth it is incredible science. However, it's not only about the science, but more importantly about who is behind it all. She has put a very real face to one of the most important medical research discoveries of our lifetime and given an appropriate name to the HeLa cells used in that research all over the world; Henrietta Lacks.

This book recounts the life of Henrietta, the death of Henrietta and the immortal cells she left behind that became the basis of many life saving discoveries in the medical field. HeLa cells are those which were taken from Henrietta's cancerous tumor many decades ago. They were easily replicated and viable for testing therefore they became an important staple in laboratories doing medical research right up to the present. Many have her cells to thank for their treatment and cures of deadly diseases.

Sounds like a generous donation to the medical community, doesn't it? But, what if Henrietta and her family had no idea any of this had taken place? They didn't know that her doctor had taken the cells, and upon realizing how unique they were, shared and traded them with other researchers. They especially were unaware that these were eventually being sold for a profit among labs and medical companies. Was this a case of explotation or was it simply how science progresses?

The author finds the surviving family of Mrs. Lacks and realizes there is far more to the story than it would first appear. She touches on each of the sensitive topics that present themselves as the family approaches her with so many questions left unanswered. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with the complexities.

The Lacks family are uneducated and living in poverty, struggling to understand how their loved one could have saved so many lives while her own could not be saved. They find it hard to believe their mother has done so much for the medical community, and made some companies millions of dollars, yet they cannot even afford good medical care. They wonder how cells were named after her yet there was no true recognition of her by her full, real name. The children hope that Ms. Skloot will not be another journalist to take advantage of them, but that she will give their mother the place she deserves as a real person, not just a "cell donor". Ms. Skloot does exactly that and I believe they would be very happy with the care she has given to the subject.

It's my opinion that everyone studying medicine & science should read this book to gain insight as to the genuine lives of patients. The understanding that there is much more to a person than their cells, their lab results, their disease, etc., is such an important lesson to be learned. To take a quote from the book, stated by the assistant who helped retrieve the cells while Henrietta was in the morgue, "When I saw those toenails I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh geez, she's a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we'd been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I'd never thought of it thay way".

I would also highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the ethical and legal aspects of the medical and scientific communities. There is also a significant component relating to the Johns Hopkins, the black community and black history. Every aspect was fascinating and eye-opening.

If you are wondering how this could have happened, be warned that it could just as easily happen to any of us tomorrow, as there are still no laws in place preventing any doctor or hospital from keeping and using our tissue, or our children's umbilical blood, or our parents tumors for research once collected. Perhaps it is better that we all contribute to furthering scientific discoveries. But, you might rethink "immortality" after hearing this story. Just one more good reason to read this book.
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49 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Henrietta Lacks was born to an impoverished family of in rural Virginia in 1920. Her family worked on the same tobacco fields that their slave ancestors did during the preceding century, and after her mother died she grew up in her grandfather's dilapidated log cabin that served as slave quarters. She left school after the sixth grade to pick tobacco for ten cents per day on the farms of local whites. Henrietta had her first child with her first cousin Day at age 14, and they eventually married and moved to a small town outside of Baltimore during World War II so that Day could work at Bethlehem Steel for less than 80 cents an hour.

In early 1951, Henrietta went to the gynecology clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital after feeling a "knot" in her womb. After she was taken to a "Colored" examination room, the gynecologist on duty found a firm mass on her cervix that seemed cancerous, but was unlike anything he had ever seen. He sent a slice of the mass for analysis, and Henrietta was soon diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Henrietta returned to Johns Hopkins a few weeks later, where she underwent treatment for cervical cancer. She was given a generalized consent form that gave permission for her doctors to perform any operative procedures necessary to treat her illness. However, she was not told that one of the staff gynecologists was collecting specimens of clinic patients with cervical cancer for a clinical study, and biopsies of healthy and cancerous cervical tissues were taken from her during her initial procedure. The cancerous cells, which were named HeLa after the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last names, proved to be the first human cells that could be grown indefinitely in a nutrient broth, and the Johns Hopkins researchers were overjoyed at this long awaited success.

The treatment she received at Hopkins was state of the art, but was unsuccessful, due to the aggressive nature of her primary tumor, and she succumbed to her illness several months later. The researchers wanted to acquire more specimens from her tumor ridden body by performing an autopsy with biopsies. Her husband, after initially denying a request for an autopsy, was misled into agreeing to allow the Hopkins pathologists to perform a limited autopsy, after he was told that the doctors wanted to run tests that might help his children someday.

The HeLa cell line was provided to scientists and organizations worldwide for minimal cost, as neither the researchers nor Johns Hopkins profited from the first immortal human cell line. However, a number of companies made millions of dollars by mass producing HeLa and selling them at a much higher cost. HeLa was used in numerous important biomedical studies, including the development of the Salk polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, cancer and viral research projects, and studies of the effects of weightlessness and space travel on the human body by NASA.

During this time Henrietta's husband and children were completely unaware that her cells had been harvested for medical research by the Hopkins doctors. By that time most of them were living in poverty in Baltimore, and were unable to afford basic health insurance. Articles about HeLa began to appear in medical journals and in the lay press, but it wasn't until 1973 that the family accidentally learned about the HeLa cell line. The family was contacted by Johns Hopkins, so that their cells could be analyzed and compared to those taken from Henrietta 22 years earlier. Once again they were misled into believing that the purpose of these tests was to determine if any of her children also had cancer, which caused Deborah, Henrietta's oldest surviving daughter, many years of anguish.

Once Henrietta's name was released in the media, the family was besieged by journalists and others wishing to profit from her story, causing her husband and children to become distrustful and wary.

Rebecca Skloot became interested in Henrietta Lacks after hearing about the HeLa cell line and its forgotten host as an undergraduate student. She spent many months and countless hours attempting to contact the Lacks family, and she slowly but painfully gained the trust of Deborah and her siblings, after she promised to tell the family's story alongside the history of HeLa.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fantastic achievement, given the hurdles that Skloot had to overcome to obtain information from the Lacks family, Johns Hopkins, and the other key actors in this story. In addition to an in-depth history of this ordinary yet quite remarkable family, she provides just the right amount of information about HeLa and what it meant for biomedical research, along with information about informed consent from the 1950s to the present, the effect of race on medical care in the United States and the views of African-Americans toward medical experimentation, and the biology of cancer. The book is meant for a lay audience, but it would be of interest to those with a formal medical background. I found the book to be a bit overly sentimental and personal at times, but this is a very minor criticism of a fabulous book.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 21, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman in the 1950's, feels a "knot" in her belly and goes to a Johns Hopkins segregated ward to seek medical help. A test reveals cervical cancer, and a sample of a tumor is taken and sent to George Gey, whose interest is in growing cells for medical testing. That act sets off an incredible, amazing chain reaction, telling the story of an amazing cell line that not only refuses to die, but thrives, as well as the story of equity, science, and family in America.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot learns about this "immortal" cell line, now called HeLa, as a high school student. Intrigued by the woman who "donated" them, she begins a journey of uncovering the life of this person. As a white woman, she discovers that getting to talk with the family, who is justifiably suspicious of her (the white community is only interested in black folks when they can make a few bucks off them). However, persistence and determination, as well as student loans and credit cards, allow her to get to know the family, especially Henrietta's daughter Deborah.

As Skloot states at the end of the book, Deborah is the emotional center of the story; a woman so wanting just to get to know the mother she never knew (Henrietta died soon after her diagnosis). Lacking a high school education, Deborah had a dictionary and an insatiable stream of questions that would lead her to the truth about her mother. Skloot befriends her, and together, they get to know this woman by interviewing relatives, visiting homesteads, and even taking an emotional journey to Johns Hopkins to see these amazing cells themselves. Deborah is challenging, strong, and compelling.

Through this journey, the book wanders its way through racial identities in America, and how the African American community was treated by the medical community, especially in the early part of the 20th century. Poverty, medical ethics, and familial ties all play significant roles in this story. Skoolt masterfully blends all elements equally well, telling a story that is complete and compelling.

This book is a must read, for everyone.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover
A compelling book I could not put down-the writing is informative about science, medical ethics, race relations, and the lives and histories of Henrietta Lacks and her family. I really liked the book, and I loved the author; her passion for her subject matter, her concerns about truth and justice, and her compassion for Henrietta and her family are so impressive.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Disclosure: I was a researcher who used HeLa cells for many years. The general understanding regarding the name, HeLa, was that it stood for Helen Lane, a pseudonym designed to protect the identity of the patient, which it did for decades until someone made an unethical breach revealing patient records to a reporter.

Most of the reviews I have read complain that the cells were taken without consent and that vast riches have been gleaned at the expense of the Lacks family. In addition there is accusation that white scientists have exploited impoverished African American patients with clear racist impications. Most of these allegations are completely false.

While the tissue biopsy was taken without consent, this was common practice at the time and many years would pass before informed consent would be introduced. The researcher who successfully cultured the cells, Dr. Gey, visited Ms Lacks in the hospital and informed her of the cultures, to which she expressed a hope that they would be useful. This is described in the book. Hundreds of thousands of samples have been collected from patients in the same manner and are currently used for research and stored frozen. The unique property of HeLa cells that made them so useful then and now is their ease of culture. Other extremely useful features are that they do not die after several doublings, but are immortalized, and also that they grow in suspension culture, allowing large quantities to be grown without undue labor and expense.

In my experience, cultures were freely exchanged between scientists on request. I never heard of anyone purchasing them. Maintenance of a cell line does require some effort, and if anyone wishes to perform this service they are entitled to a fee. The ATCC does this, but it should be emphasized that it is a non-profit organization. The implication that huge fortunes were made by commercializing these cells is likely to be fantasy. Johns Hopkins and George Gey did not patent the cells or restrict their use; indeed, they gave them away to any researcher who might find them useful. If the cells had received a patent, it would have long since expired and anyone who wished could have used them for free since around 1970.

Lastly, the book points out that Johns Hopkins was intentionally located in a poor section of Baltimore in order to be of service to the underprivileged. The allegation that it exploits poor African Americans is disingenuous and unfair to the dedicated men and women who work there in service to science and medicine.

In closing, I will add my voice to the chorus of appreciative readers who were entertained and informed by this brilliantly written book. My only reservation is that some wrong conclusions were drawn by implication. While scientific inquiry was greatly enhanced through the use of HeLa cells as an investigational vehicle, the Lacks family does not have legal claim to compensation any more than they can rightly claim the royalties from this book.
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