The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Crown/Archetype | March 8, 2011 | Trade Paperback

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is rated 4 out of 5 by 12.
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta''s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can''t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 400 pages, 7.99 × 5.15 × 1.05 in

Published: March 8, 2011

Publisher: Crown/Archetype

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 1400052181

ISBN - 13: 9781400052189

Found in: Science and Nature

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Three Cheers for Henrietta Lacks! Exhilarating! You'll get caught up in the story of Henrietta Lacks - a poor black woman who suffered with cervical cancer and unknowingly is responsible for some of the most important discoveries in medical science. Her amazing cells have made significant contributions and continue to this day. The dialogue is scientific yet easy to understand, the family history is compelling and the ethical and moral implications are thought provoking. Everyone should know about HeLa.
Date published: 2013-11-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A little bit biography, a little bit science, a little bit ethics 4.5 stars Henrietta Lacks was only 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died, though, the doctors at Johns Hopkins, the only hospital she could go to because it was the only one close by that would treat poor black people, took some of the cancer cells from her, without her knowledge. Those cells produced results in all kinds of scientific testing for decades after Henrietta died, and they continue to be tested on. Her family, meanwhile, continues to live in poverty and cannot afford their own health care. This book lived up to expectations for me. I know most people have probably already read this who are interested in reading this, but I found this so fascinating. I like biographies, so the biographical part of the book was interesting for me, both Henrietta's bio and her family's. The author had to work so hard to even get Henrietta's family to talk to her at all, then to trust her. I found a good portion of the scientific/medical info interesting, as well, but occasionally, there were bits and pieces that were a little over my head, although most of it was explained so it was fairly easy to understand. I just wanted to keep reading this book, and to get back to reading it when I wasn't. So, this book is a little bit biography, a little bit science, a little bit ethics (or a lot ethics?), and it will make my favourites list for the year.
Date published: 2013-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredible Story This highly readable account of how a woman's cells lived on after she died to make medical history is stunning. The story reflects the time period of a prejudicial era that has been portrayed before but not in such a candid record. Even as her cells duplicated themselves, Henrietta's name and family were placed on the side to watch as science took precedence. And although the gains were immense, what is the cost?
Date published: 2013-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science, history & the human experience I had heard of the woman who gave us "HeLa" cells in high school biology, and came to appreciate the cells' omnipresent role in cell biology through university courses. But I had no grasp of the suffering, injustice, and bigotry experienced by this person and her family. To anyone who appreciates the technical advances in cancer treatment or in medical research ethics, this book is a must read.
Date published: 2012-12-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks You've never heard of Henrietta Lacks? I'm not surprised. But you should get to know her, because she has affected your life, the life of everyone around you, and the lives of most people, in the world. Incredible, you say. Indeed. And yet, it's true. In the late 1940s, scientists struggled to grow human cells in laboratory conditions so they could use those cells to create new medical treatments and prescription drugs. No matter what cells they used or what growing cultures they tried, the cells always died—until Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of abdominal pain. When doctors removed a piece of the cancerous tumour growing on her cervix, those cells grew. And grew. And grew. And are still growing more than 60 years later. They have been to space, blown up, and cloned. If you weighed all her cells ever grown, they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons. Her cells helped to create the polio vaccine and new cancer treatments. They helped to develop in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. The problem was, and is, the cells were taken without informed consent, and her family didn't know about all this until much later. Henrietta Lacks was poor and black in Baltimore in the early 1950s. Laws at the time did little to protect the rights of individuals, especially not poor black women with terminal cancer. Rebecca Skloot maintains the perfect balance between compassion and impartiality when unfolding this astonishing story of science, family relationships, racism, the health care system, and faith. Over many years, she conducted admirably in-depth research to draw out the details of the science and the sequence of events. We have Henrietta Lacks to thank for two generations of children without polio. Will Henrietta's cells lead to the elusive cure for cancer for that person you love? What about your cells and tissues? Do you know what happened to that appendix they took out? Where do we draw the line between the rights of scientific study and your right to protect your cells? And, importantly, why can't the family of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who profoundly affected modern medicine, afford health care? Everyone should read this book. It's about Henrietta Lacks, but it's also about you, me, all of us. "Under the microscope, cells don't have a color . . . They all look the same . . ." __________ A portion of the proceeds from this book go to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.
Date published: 2012-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great read I read this book a few years ago. Very engaging story which marries scientific advancement with a tragic human narrative. I believe all those involved in research involving human cell lines owe it to Henrietta Lacks to read this book. I couldn't put it down.
Date published: 2012-12-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I learned a few things, the long and hard way .... I wish I could be more excited about this book and share it in this review. Henrietta's life was fascinating and those parts of the book dedicated to her life, and her family's lives were by far the most interesting. The science sections were significantly less interesting. I wish the author would have spent more time on the issues raised in the "Afterwards" which are current and debatable topics that will definitely give your bookclub something to discuss. Otherwise, a hesitant recommendation - I'm glad I read it, I learned a few things, but it didn't keep my attention so it took entirely too long to get through.
Date published: 2012-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unbelievably Gripping The title is intriguing...alluring if anything, which captures the attention of readers. Once you open the cover and flip to the first page you will be caught in a story that weaves the very origin of medical breakthroughs that have revolutionized the industry and the lives of hundreds of millions around the world. This book explores in a way that connects with the reader the foundations around how we are where we are today, scientifically in the medical field. The author's dedication to the very core of this truth, the family and woman who changed the nature of medicine and science is compelling in this book. It is a must read for everyone as this woman, Henrietta Lacks, and what she has done for the world affects everyone. The very content of this book has affected hundreds of millions and this story should be shared with everyone. Extremely well written and a must read.
Date published: 2011-12-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks This is a great read, especially if you are keen on biological sciences. I have a science degree and learned all about cells, DNA, cancer and never learned about how we got the cells to study to find out this information. I have never even considered the people behind the cells I studied in university. This book was an eye opener and it is well written and well paced that it keeps your attention. Definitely a learning experience and a book that makes you think about science and also about the field of medicine.
Date published: 2011-09-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from ok, not great The contents of this book would have made a great article in a magazine. I was interested in the cell line and why it was as robust as it was and how it has contributed to a lot of important research. Who Henrietta Lacks was and what her family did in the last sixty years is not particularly relevant. Now, if the author had wanted to write about how blacks moved from slavery into functioning in the twentieth century, that would have been fascinating.
Date published: 2011-07-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Totally Awesome Wow, this really had me from the start. Raised a lot of questions, answered some questions. Really great read. Sympathized with the family. Someone who wrote a review said the yelled a lot, lol, they sure had a right to yell. The author did a great job telling their story and explaining the medical side too. If you love medical stuff or human rights issues your gonna love this one!
Date published: 2011-06-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 50/50 for me I have to admit, I'm not feeling totally inspired to write a review of this novel. On one hand, I found the human part of this story quite gripping, and genuinely wanted to keep reading about not only Henrietta, but her decendents as well. It is very easy to see that Skloot felt a great deal love and respect for these people, on the other hand she did an enormous amount of research for this novel and at times it was a slog to get through. Having some background in a lab environment and specifically cell growth, I could easily follow along with her descriptions of procedures etc, but I did wonder how it would read to someone who had none. It was fascinating to read about all of the unethical ways doctors and scientists once conducted studies and gathered data on diseases (sometimes fatal ones). I had no idea before reading this novel, just how important and far-reaching HeLa cells have been to modern science, and have no complaints with the actual writing in this book, but I feel it may have been better told in fewer pages, and may not appeal to the masses.
Date published: 2011-05-11

– More About This Product –

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 400 pages, 7.99 × 5.15 × 1.05 in

Published: March 8, 2011

Publisher: Crown/Archetype

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 1400052181

ISBN - 13: 9781400052189

About the Book

Acclaimed author Skloot brilliantly weaves together the story of Henrietta Lacks--a woman whose cells have been unwittingly used for scientific research since the 1950s--with the birth of bioethics, and the dark history of experimentation on African Americans.

Read from the Book

PROLOGUE The Woman in the Photograph There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”             No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells— her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.             Her real name is Henrietta Lacks. I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I&rsqu
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From the Publisher

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta''s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can''t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

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. 

Editorial Reviews

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Entertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of the Year New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite American Library Association Notable Book People Top Ten Book of the Year Washington Post Book World Top Ten Book of the Year Salon.com Best Book of the Year USA Today Ten Books We Loved Reading O, The Oprah Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year National Public Radio Best of the Bestsellers Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year   Financial Times Nonfiction Favorite Los Angeles Times Critics’ Pick Bloomberg Top Nonfiction New York magazine Top Ten Book of the Year Slate.com Favorite Book of the Year TheRoot.com Top Ten Book of the Year Discover magazine 2010 Must-Read Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year U.S. News & World Report Top Debate-Worthy Book Booklist Top of the List—Best Nonfiction Book New York Times /Science Bestseller list   “I could not put the book down . . . The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly.” — Entertainment Weekly “Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful.” —New York Times Book Review “ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever rea
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Bookclub Guide

1. On page xiii, Rebecca Skloot states “This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated.” Consider the process Skloot went through to verify dialogue, recreate scenes, and establish facts. Imagine trying to re-create scenes such as when Henrietta discovered her tumor (page 15). What does Skloot say on pages xiii–xiv and in the notes section (page 346) about how she did this?

2. One of Henrietta’s relatives said to Skloot, “If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest” (page xiii). Throughout, Skloot is true to the dialect in which people spoke to her: the Lackses speak in a heavy Southern accent, and Lengauer and Hsu speak as non-native English speakers. What impact did the decision to maintain speech authenticity have on the story?

3. As much as this book is about Henrietta Lacks, it is also about Deborah learning of the mother she barely knew, while also finding out the truth about her sister, Elsie. Imagine discovering similar information about one of your family members. How would you react? What questions would you ask?

4. In a review for the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes, “Ms. Skloot is a memorable character herself. She never intrudes on the narrative, but she takes us along with her on her reporting.” How would the story have been different if she had not been a part of it? What do you think would have happened to scenes like the faith healing on page 289? Are there other scenes you can think of where her presence made a difference? Why do you think she decided to include herself in the story?

5.  Deborah shares her mother’s medical records with Skloot, but is adamant that she not copy everything. On page 284 Deborah says, “Everybody in the world got her cells, only thing we got of our mother is just them records and her Bible.” Discuss the deeper meaning behind this sentence. Think not only of her words, but also of the physical reaction she was having to delving into her mother’s and sister’s medical histories. If you were in Deborah’s situation, how would you react to someone wanting to look into your mother’s medical records?

6. This is a story with many layers. Though it’s not told chronologically, it is divided into three sections. Discuss the significance of the titles given to each part: Life, Death, and Immortality. How would the story have been different if it were told chronologically?

7. As a journalist, Skloot is careful to present the encounter between the Lacks family and the world of medicine without taking sides. Since readers bring their own experiences and opinions to the text, some may feel she took the scientists’ side, while others may feel she took the family’s side. What are your feelings about this? Does your opinion fall on one side or the other, or somewhere in the middle, and why?

8. Henrietta signed a consent form that said, “I hereby give consent to the staff of The Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform any operative procedures and under any anaesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of: ________” (page 31). Based on this statement, do you believe TeLinde and Gey had the right to obtain a sample from her cervix to use in their research? What information would they have had to give her for Henrietta to give informed consent? Do you think Henrietta would have given explicit consent to have a tissue sample used in medical research if she had been given all the information? Do you always thoroughly read consent forms before signing them?

9. In 1976, when Mike Rogers’s Rolling Stone article was printed, many viewed it as a story about race (see page 197 for reference). How do you think public interpretation might have been different if the piece had been published at the time of Henrietta’s death in 1951? How is this different from the way her story is being interpreted today? How do you think Henrietta’s experiences with the medical system would have been different had she been a white woman? What about Elsie’s fate?

10. Consider Deborah’s comment on page 276: “Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.” Is it possible to approach history from an objective point of view? If so, how and why is this important, especially in the context of Henrietta’s story?

11. Deborah says, “But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense” (page 9). Should the family be financially compensated for the HeLa cells? If so, who do you believe that money should come from? Do you feel the Lackses deserve health insurance even though they can’t afford it? How would you respond if you were in their situation?

12. Dr. McKusick directed Susan Hsu to contact Henrietta’s children for blood samples to further HeLa research; neither McKusick nor Hsu tried to get informed consent for this research. Discuss whether or not you feel this request was ethical. Further, think about John Moore and the patent that had been filed without his consent on his cells called “Mo” (page 201). How do you feel about the Supreme Court of California ruling that states when tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes?

13. Religious faith and scientific understanding, while often at odds with each other, play important roles in the lives of the Lacks family. How does religious faith help frame the Lacks’ response to and interpretation of the scientific information they receive about HeLa? How does Skloot’s attitude towards religious faith and science evolve as a result of her relationship with the Lackses?

14. On page 261, Deborah and Zakariyya visit Lengauer’s lab and see the cells for the first time. How is their interaction with Lengauer different from the previous interactions the family had with representatives of Johns Hopkins? Why do you think it is so different? What does the way Deborah and Zakariyya interact with their mother’s cells tell you about their feelings for her?

15. Reflect upon Henrietta’s life: What challenges did she and her family face? What do you think their greatest strengths were? Consider the progression of Henrietta’s cancer in the last eight months between her diagnosis and death. How did she face death? What do you think that says about the type of person she was?