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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Hardcover – February 2, 2010

4.6 out of 5 stars 4,779 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time…'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'…floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' and 'The Andromeda Strain.'…it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Skloot's vivid account begins with the life of Henrietta Lacks, who comes fully alive on the page…'Immortal Life' reads like a novel."--Eric Roston, The Washington Post

“Gripping…by turns heartbreaking, funny and unsettling…raises troubling questions about the way Mrs. Lacks and her family were treated by researchers and about whether patients should control or have financial claims on tissue removed from their bodies.”—Denise Grady, New York Times

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’’ is a fascinating read and a ringing success. It is a well-written, carefully-researched, complex saga of medical research, bioethics, and race in America. 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.”—Douglas Whynott, The Boston Globe

"Riveting...raises important questions about medical ethics...It's an amazing story...Deeply chilling... Whether those uncountable HeLa cells are a miracle or a violation, Skloot tells their fascinating story at last with skill, insight and compassion" —Colette Bancroft, St. Petersburg Times

“The history of HeLa is a rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender, medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer than can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling. Rebecca Skloot has crafted a unique piece of science journalism that is impossible to put down—or to forget.”—Seed magazine


“No one can say exactly where Henrietta Lacks is buried: during the many years Rebecca Skloot spent working on this book, even Lacks’s hometown of Clover, Virginia, disappeared. But that did not stop Skloot in her quest to exhume, and resurrect, the story of her heroine and her family. What this important, invigorating book lays bare is how easily science can do wrong, especially to the poor. The issues evoked here are giant: who owns our bodies, the use and misuse of medical authority, the unhealed wounds of slavery ... and Skloot, with clarity and compassion, helps us take the long view. This is exactly the sort of story that books were made to tell—thorough, detailed, quietly passionate, and full of revelation.”—TED CONOVER, author of Newjack and The Routes of Man

“It’s extremely rare when a reporter’s passion finds its match in a story. Rarer still when the people in that story courageously join that reporter in the search for what we most need to know about ourselves. When this occurs with a moral journalist who is also a true writer, a human being with a heart capable of holding all of life’s damage and joy, the stars have aligned. This is an extraordinary gift of a book, beautiful and devastating—a work of outstanding literary reportage. Read it! It’s the best you will find in many many years.”—ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC, author of Random Family
  
 ”The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings to mind the work of Philip K. Dick and Edgar Allan Poe. But this tale is true. Rebecca Skloot explores the racism and greed, the idealism and faith in science that helped to save thousands of lives but nearly destroyed a family. This is an extraordinary book, haunting and beautifully told.”—ERIC SCHLOSSER, author of Fast Food Nation 
 
“Skloot’s book is wonderful -- deeply felt, gracefully written, sharply reported. It is a story about science but, much more, about life.”—SUSAN ORLEAN, author of The Orchid Thief
  
“This is a science biography like the world has never seen. What if one of the great American women of modern science and medicine--whose contribution underlay historic discoveries in genetics, the treatment and prevention of disease, reproduction, and the unraveling of the human genome--was a self-effacing African-American tobacco farmer from the Deep South? A devoted mother of five who was escorted briskly to the Jim Crow section of Johns Hopkins for her cancer treatments? What if the untold millions of scientists, doctors, and patients enriched and healed by her gift never, to this day, knew her name? What if her contribution was made without her knowledge or permission? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Henrietta Lacks. Chances are, at the level of your DNA, your inoculations, your physical health and microscopic well-being, you’ve already been introduced.”--MELISSA FAY GREENE, author of Praying for Sheetrock and There Is No Me Without You
  
“Heartbreaking and powerful, unsettling yet compelling, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a richly textured story of the hidden costs of scientific progress. Deftly weaving together history, journalism and biography, Rebecca Skloot?s sensitive account tells of the enduring, deeply personal sacrifice of this African American woman and her family and, at long last, restores a human face to the cell line that propelled 20th century biomedicine. A stunning illustration of how race, gender and disease intersect to produce a unique form of social vulnerability, this is a poignant, necessary and brilliant book.”—ALONDRA NELSON, Columbia University; editor of Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life
  
“Rebecca Skloot has written a marvelous book so original that it defies easy description. She traces the surreal journey that a tiny patch of cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks’s body took to the forefront of science. At the same time, she tells the story of Lacks and her family—wrestling the storms of the late twentieth century in America—with rich detail, wit, and humanity. The more we read, the more we realize that these are not two separate stories, but one tapestry. It’s part The Wire, part The Lives of the Cell, and all fascinating.”—CARL ZIMMER, author of Microcosm
  
“If virtues could be cultured like cells, Rebecca Skloot’s would be a fine place to start¾a rare combination of compassion, courage, wisdom, and intelligence. This book is extraordinary. As a writer and a human being, Skloot stands way, way out there ahead of the pack.”—MARY ROACH, author of Stiff and Bonk
  
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the reader on a remarkable journey—compassionate, troubling, funny, smart—and irresistible. Along the way, Rebecca Skloot will change the way you see medical science and lead you to wonder who we should value more—the researcher or the research subject? Ethically fascinating and completely engaging—I couldn’t recommend it more.”—DEBORAH BLUM, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Monkey Wars and the Helen Firstbrook Franklin professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
 
 “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
  
“Rebecca Skloot’s steadfast commitment to illuminating the life and contribution of Henrietta Lacks, one of the many vulnerable subjects used for scientific advancement, and the subsequent impact on her family is a testament to the power of solid investigative journalism. Her deeply compelling account of one family’s long and troubled relationship with America’s vast medical-industrial complex is sure to become a cherished classic.”—ALLEN M. HORNBLUM, author of Acres of Skin and Sentenced to Science
 
“Writing with a novelist’s artistry, a biologist’s expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force.”—BOOKLIST (starred review)
 
“Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about ‘faith, science, journalism, and grace.’…Recalls Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family…A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred review)
 
 

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (February 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400052173
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400052172
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4,779 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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Format: Hardcover Vine 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.
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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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