The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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"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, The 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)
About the Author
REBECCA SKLOOT is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many others. She is coeditor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She was named one of five surprising leaders of 2010 by the Washington Post. Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen as a best book of 2010 by more than sixty media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, People, and the New York Times. It is being translated into more than twenty-five languages, adapted into a young reader edition, and being made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She lives in Chicago. For more information, visit her website at RebeccaSkloot.com, where you’ll find links to follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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It still amazes me that this is a woman's real life story, the story of her family, and how they have impacted science and anyone who works or benefits from the use of cellular research. That means just about every single person is connected to Henrietta in one way or another.
This was a great book that I'm so glad I read. I learned a lot and it kept me entertained and fascinated for days. It will really change your perspective and make you appreciate this woman's contribution to our scientific and health fields.
In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.
This work has the most human of stories at its core, and never deviates from that important, and often heartbreaking, humanity. When science appears, it does so effortlessly, with explanations of cell anatomy or techniques like “fluorescence in situ hybridization” seamlessly worked into descriptions of the coloured wards of Johns Hopkins hospital to Lacks’s hometown of Clover, Virginia.
But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a comfortable read. I visibly winced at descriptions of Henrietta’s blackened, burned skin after multiple rounds of devastating radiation treatments. I put the book down with a heavy sigh after reading about the experiments that black Americans have been unwittingly subjected to over the years. I cried twice, at events that I can’t talk about without seriously spoiling the book. But it is uplifting too, particularly in a stand-out chapter where Henrietta’s children, Deborah and Zakariyya, visit a cancer researcher to see their mother’s cells under a microscope.
All of this is to be expected of a book that refuses to shy away from tackling important themes – the interplay between science and ethics, the question of who owns our bodies, and the history of racism in the US. And yet for all its grand scope, skilful writing and touching compassion, there is one simple element that makes As a final thought, I was struck by the parallels between Henrietta’s cells and her story. Henrietta’s entire family history was eventually condensed into a small sliver of cells that you could carry in a glass vial. They have achieved immortality, used by scientists throughout the world. Similarly, her entire life has been condensed into a moving tale and an exceptional book that you could read in a comfortable day. By right, it will achieve the same immortal status.
But it's more than that, it's the story of Henrietta's family finding out 20 years later that their mother's cells are alive, and helping medical science! They deal with anger, disbelief, and a feeling of betrayal, since others have made money from her Henrietta's cells and they, ironically, can't afford health insurance! Skloot does a wonderful job describing the ongoing difficulties meeting the family and gaining their trust, describing their emotions and reactions (including superstition) in a way that humanized them. Many books have been written about the HeLa (HEnrietta LAcks) cells and the their effect on medical science. This book tells you what kind of person she was, and how it affected her family. One of the best books I've read in a while.
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I have also just watched the film (on a plane journey) and have to say I was very disappointed with it - it in no way does justice to the book - so if you have only watched the movie, don't let it put you off reading the book - the book is SO much better.
The book couldn't have been written without addressing race both in its history and in the underlying impact that segregation and underservice has had on communities. Henrietta Lacks had what happened to her happen because she was black, no doubt about that, but this book spends more time on explaining how the white woman gained the trust of Henrietta's remaining family than it does on the actual life of Henrietta Lacks!
The writing was nothing particularly special, the chronology of the book jumps around so much they've included a timeline to remind you where you are (though it does so to disguise a few minorly startling events). The book reads like a book report that an overzealous white ninth-grade horsegirl would have to write on Beloved by Toni Morrison: self-congratulatory and constantly reminding people that she's not like the poor black folk just because she's telling you about their story.
I recommend getting this one from the library. Read it for Henrietta's life, which comprises about two or three chapters only(!) and know that nothing gets resolved re: gene/tissue ownership (for anyone) by the end of the book.
Henrietta Lacks was a woman living in the 20th century in the racially segregated United States. Her family had to beg for treatment when Henrietta was dying from multiple cancerous tumours inside her body, and they were barely told that doctors had taken cell cultures from her, nor that they were profiting at least $100-200 each time they sold a vial of HeLa cells to researchers.
‘”Hopkins say they gave them cells away,” Lawrence yelled, “but they made millions! It’s not fair! She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”‘ (Loc. 2408)
The history of African-Americans being considered so sub-human that they were fair game for medical experimentation goes back to the 19th century, with slave owners making threats about “night doctors” who would kidnap people of African descent in the name of medical research. It’s disgusting to hear that a mere 20 years after the Tuskegee Study (carried out on African-American males because, I kid you not, ‘whites at the time believed black people were: “a notoriously syphilis-soaked race”‘), a living, breathing person was turned into a cell culture that has gone on to do so much in the world of biomedical research, while her family saw absolutely no recognition or profit whatsoever, and continue to live in poverty.
‘”The American Type Culture Collection — a non-profit whose funds go mainly towards maintaining and providing pure cultures for science — has been selling HeLa cells since the sixties. When this book went to press, their price per vial was $256. The ATCC won’t reveal how much money it brings in from HeLa sales each year, but since HeLa is one of the most popular cell lines in the world, that number is surely significant.’ (Loc. 2746)
Many people know the story of Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine and refused to monetise such a life-saving treatment, even though he could have earned billions of dollars. Few know about Henrietta Lacks’ cells, which were in fact used to create the polio vaccine. They’ve also been shot up into space, cloned, and used in multiple areas of medical research.
A warm, vibrant Southern woman, Henrietta had nobody to write down her story while she was still living. It’s only now that she’s physically nothing but a cluster of cells in multiple laboratories around the world, that her real biography can be written. By a white woman.
While there were those in Henrietta’s extended family who had opted to forget and ignore the painful memories of being ignored by medical authorities, or watching Henrietta succumb to her illness, there were those who were insistent that Henrietta’s story be told. Skloot tackles such a harrowing subject extremely deftly, although I did wish she didn’t prod some of Henrietta’s relatives quite so harshly, even if it was done in earnest, as she claims. Sometimes the Lackses just wished to let sleeping dogs lie, and yet Skloot barged into their lives to demand their painful memories out of them.
The narrative of trying to reclaim Henrietta’s life from those who have reduced her to a mere label on a petri dish is fascinating, and done respectfully. Skloot never intrudes and makes the story about herself, which is a real danger with a lot of biographies — especially when they aren’t being penned by the person who actually lived that life. Some parts of the book are worded rather dryly, but considering Skloot’s background as a scientific journalist, that’s to be expected. She otherwise delivers this account of Henrietta’s life and her cell line in a captivating way, and it’s an absolutely fascinating read.
1)The history of tissue culture, particularly the contribution of the “immortal,” prolific HeLa cells that revolutionized medical research.
2) The life, disease and death of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cervical cancer cells gave rise to the HeLa cell line.
3) The story of Henrietta Lacks’s impoverished family, particularly her daughter Deborah, belatedly discovering and coping with their mother’s cellular legacy.
Intertwined with all three is the concept of informed consent in scientific research, and who owns those bits of us and our genetic information that are floating around the research world. That perfect scientific/bioethical/historical mystery doesn’t come along every day. And to top it off the author doesn't pretend to solve anything, like we can look back on the issues of who owns those bits of us used for research as an artifact of past ignorance, the issue is still ongoing.
A thought-provoking read for anyone with a social-justice bent
The science parts are written in an accessible style. Anyone (like me) working in cancer epidemiology is likely to find it fascinating. Anyone who works with donated human samples or who has donated samples to a research project is likely to find it fascinating. It’s a sad story in parts but also a story of so much coming from such small beginnings. I suppose that’s all of human life and endeavour.
This book is exceptionally well written; the author makes the whole subject of cell mutation and biology accessible, whilst always keeping the focus on the real woman behind these petri dishes. The modern reader will be shocked as to how the cells were taken in the first place, and how a black woman in the segregated American South could expect to be treated once she had a terminal illness. As the Hela cells multiplied and multiplied, her children were left very much in the dark about their mother's legacy, and have an understandable struggle to cope with the concept that their mother is dead but her cells live on throughout the world; more of Henrietta's cells now exist in the world than were in her body when she was alive. The issues in this book are almost science fiction in their scope - except that this is very much science fact.
There will ever be a story quite like Henrietta's, so the author had remarkable material to work with, but I also doubt whether any other writer would have handled it with such skill, sensitivity and intelligence as is found in this book.
story.The reason for four stars rather than five was the latter part of the book( after the main story) was taken up with the litigation struggles for control of the genes .
The book certainly is not fiction, and tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from Maryland who was dying of cervical cancer and from whom cells and samples were taken without her knowledge or informed consent which was the norm in the 50's particularly among black patients.
Those cells grew and came to be known in the science world as He-La, and the story of the woman they came from became lost. The contribution of He-La to modern science is enormous, the cells have been used in the polio vaccine, cancer research and were even taken into space. Hence, her immortal life
But Skloot's book is most definitely not the story of the clump of cells referred to as He-La and their contribution to Science, it is the story of their donor Henrietta ever overlooked in the history of those cells, and particularly the impact this scientific use has had upon her husband and children.
What follows is a moving tale of an uneducated family from a poor neighbourhood whose relationship to the He-La phenomenon has been forgotten and overlooked. Despite the millions of pounds He-La research has generated her family cannot afford to see the doctor when they are ill, and the idea that their mothers DNA is still living in laboratories throughout the world frightens them, they don't understand the science, and nobody's ever explained it.
This book is not only a testament to Henrietta Lacks and her family, but the Herculean work done by the author, particularly to gain the trust of the family deserves respect. A unique piece of work marrying modern science and a true human interest story, I believe that everyone will find this book (despite it being non fiction and about Science) to be engaging in the same way as a novel or a biography. It is extremely well written and deserves an 8/10 from me