The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

byRebecca Skloot

Paperback | March 8, 2011

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Now an HBO® Film starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne


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.
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 leader...
Title:The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksFormat:PaperbackDimensions:400 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 1 inPublished:March 8, 2011Publisher:Crown/ArchetypeLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1400052181

ISBN - 13:9781400052189

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from 3.5 stars A very interesting story about the origin of HeLa cells, although the book drags a bit at times.
Date published: 2018-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Book! Whether you are into science or not, this is a great read! Very well-written and informative, you will not be able to put this book down.
Date published: 2018-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great book this book is amazing. I had never heard of these cells of this lady but this book does an amazing job of explaining the science and the person behind everything. A must read!
Date published: 2018-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Couldn't/Wouldn't put it down! never do I think that a non fiction book would catch my attention. I was proven wrong times 100 with this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the history of HeLa and the story of a woman who was clearly taken advantage of in the name of science. I like the pros and cons feel to the writing. I thought revealing the truth about family members was refreshing; it was jarring, definitely but refreshing to not have some ridiculous fairy tale (or conversely, some horrific nightmare that doesn't end)...makes it relatable.
Date published: 2018-03-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Important book for all scientists to read Rebecca Skloot has done a tremendous, and important job in bringing humanism to Henrietta Lacks. It is imperative that scientists understand the real hopes and dreams of the woman whose cell line has helped millions of people through scientific research.
Date published: 2018-03-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Couldn't put it down! Skloot offered a deep insight into a world consisting of cells, racism, and life after death (in the sense of a name rather than religion). It's a different view point on how I studied HeLa in labs and in lectures, putting a story to the name.
Date published: 2018-02-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Very educational read I liked this book. It had a good story and was very educational (the science is amazing). Everyone should know about HeLa and once you've read this book you'll have a better understanding of it all.
Date published: 2018-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Can't put it down I've only been able to read this on bus rides to and from work but every time I do, I am absolutely immersed into the story and more often than not, I have almost missed my stop! The story is told beautifully and with intrigue right from the beginning. The author jumps back and forth between past and present to give us the whole story and in different perspectives which I really enjoyed. It helped me visualize the story much better. The book is written in a way that would be understandable by a wide audience and not just for people with a science background. Henrietta Lacks's and her family's complicated and tragic history is told in not just told with the cold, hard, scientific facts but the story is revealed in such a heart-breaking way that you would feel nothing but sympathy. Although heart-breaking, HeLa cells have made huge contributions to science that people should be aware of and this book does it justice.
Date published: 2017-11-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from History we should all know I had this book on my shelf for awhile; I kept going back to my fiction. But once I picked the book up I couldn't put it down. It's unbelievable how much one woman's cell did for humanity today. And to think that she, nor any of her family, benefited from this. I'm looking forward to watching the movie - despite Oprah being in it.
Date published: 2017-09-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Really Interesting This was a book club pick. We don't often read non-fiction but occasionally we have the odd one. This turned out to be a very interesting read, which everyone enjoyed. It's non-fiction but it almost reads like fiction. Although there were parts, especially at the start, that were a little harder to read due to the science aspect, it was still an easy read overall. Everyone in the book club rated it quite highly, with it in fact being our highest rated non-fiction pick. It truly is amazing what both the human body is capable of and what science can discover.
Date published: 2017-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging Read! Very interesting book. I learned a lot reading this book.
Date published: 2017-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must Read A book club choice. This was not the book that I voted for but I am so glad it was chosen. Non-Fiction that reads like fiction. The story will change the way you look at medicine, and will surely be on your mind at your next Dr's visit.
Date published: 2017-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating So interesting and loved the family stories as well.
Date published: 2017-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Non-fiction, but still gripping storytelling I must admit, I mainly read as an escape. This book encompasses both gripping storytelling as well as a fascinating educational journey.
Date published: 2017-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing! This book was absolutely fascinating! The true of Henrietta Lacks is so interesting, and I was shocked I hadn’t heard about it before. When Henrietta died in 1951, a sample of her cancer cells was taken without her family’s permission. Those cells became the first immortal cells and were used to develop groundbreaking medical research such as the polio vaccine, chemotherapy drugs, cloning, gene mapping and more. Yet Henrietta’s family was living in poverty, and they were never told or explained the importance of the cells scientists called “HeLa Cells.” They had little education and even when they were told the significance of HeLa cells, no one took the time to explain why or what had really happened to Henrietta. "If our mother was so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?" After Henrietta died, her husband still had to work to support their children so their relatives Ethel and Galen decide to move in to help raised them. Lawrence, the oldest had since moved out and Elsie was living in a Psychiatric hospital. Deborah, David Jr. and Joe were all still young and needed someone to look after them. Instead, the children were physically abused by Ethel and forced to work on the family's tobacco farm without food or drink, while Galen also molested Deborah. The situation improves when Lawrence and his wife Bobbette discover the abuse and decide to take them in, but the children are forever changed. The Lacks family suffers so many injustices, especially by the medical and pharmaceutical industry, which makes millions off of HeLa cells. Rebecca Skloot covers her ten year journey to write this book and give Henrietta the recognition she deserves while also helping her family understand what happened to Henrietta and the importance of her cells. I really enjoyed the medical and scientific aspects of this book as well as Skloot's struggle to get the Lacks family to trust her and contribute to the book. I also really enjoyed the authors relationship with Deborah and her family.
Date published: 2017-05-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating Very well written. Told the story of cell research using Henrietta's cells and the impact this had on her family.
Date published: 2017-05-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great book with an interesting, special topic Interesting book to read, and especially interesting how much it talks about her whole family. Wasn't dry reading at all.
Date published: 2017-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Book - A Must Read Incredible story! - hard to believe this actually happened. Very informative book (based on a real story) about the evolution of human cell research, use, patient consent issues and ownership. Very informative indeed.
Date published: 2017-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent, Informative Book Normally, I do not enjoy stories that break the flow of time (i.e., jump around to different time points), but Skloot does an excellent job of weaving present day events with the history of Henrietta's life. The story itself lends itself to connecting with the individuals involved, but Skloot provides such a great level of detail about all of the individuals that you almost feel that you are reading an interview between the author and the people, rather than a historical review of events.
Date published: 2017-05-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from loved it so good heart warming and charming
Date published: 2017-05-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Loved the book! The author made the book very readable! Really exciting and easy to read book!!!
Date published: 2017-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Illuminating I really enjoyed reading about Henrietta and her family. I also liked that the author explained the science behind HeLa and how it grew and became advanced. Very interesting read. I am excited to see it as a movie.
Date published: 2017-04-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating This was a fascinating read! I would highly recommend this for a book club!
Date published: 2017-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Such a great book! I was intrigued by this book's description and it didn't let me down. It was very interesting and very readable even though I'm not a science kind of person.
Date published: 2017-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautifully written, touching This book should be a mandatory read in medical schools worldwide - much of the knowledge gleaned in health sciences over the years was because of this woman! Excellent read. Captivated me from the start - I couldn't put it down.
Date published: 2017-03-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Great idea, not a great read For being a really neat subject, this book was quite boring. It took far too long for me to get hooked. I appreciate all of the struggles that the Lacks family were involved in. Ultimately, HeLa cells are not going anywhere fast and they will continue to pioneer the medical field as we know it.
Date published: 2017-02-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from an amazing read! I had to read this for my university course; Honestly didn't think I would enjoy it that much. I loved learning about her, and what her family went through. It was funny, heartbreaking, beautifully written.
Date published: 2017-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this... I couldn't put this book down once I started reading it. I heard this is gonna be turned into a movie so I can't wait to see it. She and her story definitely deserves to be known. I had no idea about Henrietta Lacks before I read this and how her cells have made a contribution to medicine. I am glad Skloot took time and effort to bring about Lack's story. She did a very great job, it is well written as well.
Date published: 2017-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really enjoyed it I have recommended this book to friends that don't have a science background and they enjoyed it. So much is covered in this book. The lack or beginnings of ethics in science and research. A perspective of different times socially as well. Great work. Easy to read.
Date published: 2017-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Engaging Really engaging non-fiction, with a solid understanding of pace. I still feel like I learned more about, and got more attached and sympathetic to, Deborah, rather than Henrietta, but it was a very very interesting, well-researched book.
Date published: 2017-01-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not what I was expecting This book is mainly a biography of Henrietta. However, I was expecting mainly the uses of her cells from the title. Good book for only those interested in her life.
Date published: 2017-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic book This book was interesting not only because of the family's story and the hardships they went through, but was also interesting from a scientific and bioethics point of view.
Date published: 2017-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gripping read A friend recommended this book for our feminist book club, even though it's not feminist at all and really just a darn good book about a woman who changed modern medicine without even realizing it. I did not know the story about Henrietta nor her cells, so I was fascinated by the chain of events and at times, heartbroken for her family. The writer succeeds in what is sounds many who tried to tell this tale did not - she captures the people and the sad & at times shocking reality of growing up poor and black in rural America. A few times I had to book the book down but even still, I found the writing so captivating I finished the book in almost 24 hours.
Date published: 2016-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from AMAZING STORY! I have neither heard about Henrietta Lacks nor about her story prior to reading this. It immediately grabbed me and I still get chills when I think back.
Date published: 2016-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is not Fiction! Incredible True Story! Fascinating look into the life of Henrietta Lacks who passed away from cervical . Unknown to her family, her malignant cells did not die. Her cells have literally given birth to cancer research along with vaccines to polio and other diseases. Commonly used medications all owe a gratitude of thanks to Henrietta's HeLa cells. An incredible true story that should be 'must reading' for everyone.
Date published: 2016-12-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Henrietta Lacks This is a sad tale of a family who lost their mother, but more than that this is a tale of a woman who's body was used without her permission. Many advances in medicine were made because of Ms. Lacks, but at what human cost?
Date published: 2016-12-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sad story of scientific ethics Amazing - and sad - story of the cells that drove so much genetic research, the impact on the family of the woman who was the source of the cells, and the author's efforts to tell their story. Also a fascinating glimpse into genetic research. Well worth reading.
Date published: 2016-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mind Blowing This is a great book because it teaches you about a person's life, the illness of cancer itself, how corrupt researching cancer has become and the history of how ethics in regards to experimenting on unsuspecting human patients has evolved.
Date published: 2016-11-07
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

Read from the Book

PROLOGUEThe Woman in the PhotographThere’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’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.            There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.          I first learned about HeLa cells and the woman behind them in 1988, thirty-seven years after her death, when I was sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. He pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didn’t understand, like “MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations.”            I was a kid who’d failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. I’d transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Defler’s class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost.           “Do we have to memorize everything on those diagrams?” one student yelled.           Yes, Defler said, we had to memorize the diagrams, and yes, they’d be on the test, but that didn’t matter right then. What he wanted us to understand was that cells are amazing things: There are about one hundred trillion of them in our bodies, each so small that several thousand could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. They make up all our tissues—muscle, bone, blood—which in turn make up our organs.           Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) that’s full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and a yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. It’s crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. All the while, little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7, cranking out sugars, fats, proteins, and energy to keep the whole thing running and feed the nucleus. The nucleus is the brains of the operation; inside every nucleus within each cell in your body, there’s an identical copy of your entire genome. That genome tells cells when to grow and divide and makes sure they do their jobs, whether that’s controlling your heartbeat or helping your brain understand the words on this page.            Defler paced the front of the classroom telling us how mitosis—the process of cell division—makes it possible for embryos to grow into babies, and for our bodies to create new cells for healing wounds or replenishing blood we’ve lost. It was beautiful, he said, like a perfectly choreographed dance.           All it takes is one small mistake anywhere in the division process for cells to start growing out of control, he told us. Just one enzyme misfiring, just one wrong protein activation, and you could have cancer. Mitosis goes haywire, which is how it spreads.           “We learned that by studying cancer cells in culture,” Defler said. He grinned and spun to face the board, where he wrote two words in enormous print: HENRIETTA LACKS.          Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.            “Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions—if not billions—of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice.            Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.            “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said.            Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over.           As the other students filed out of the room, I sat thinking, That’s it? That’s all we get? There has to be more to the story.           I followed Defler to his office.            “Where was she from?” I asked. “Did she know how important her cells were? Did she have any children?”            “I wish I could tell you,” he said, “but no one knows anything about her.”           After class, I ran home and threw myself onto my bed with my biology textbook. I looked up “cell culture” in the index, and there she was, a small parenthetical:In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal.” A striking example is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.)That was it. I looked up HeLa in my parents’ encyclopedia, then my dictionary: No Henrietta.            As I graduated from high school and worked my way through college toward a biology degree, HeLa cells were omnipresent. I heard about them in histology, neurology, pathology; I used them in experiments on how neighboring cells communicate. But after Mr. Defler, no one mentioned Henrietta.            When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.            Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henrietta’s husband saying, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.” Jet said the family was angry—angry that Henrietta’s cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said, “Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”            The articles all ran photos of Henrietta’s family: her oldest son sitting at his dining room table in Baltimore, looking at a genetics textbook. Her middle son in military uniform, smiling and holding a baby. But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. Except Deborah. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. She’s twenty-six years old and beautiful, with short brown hair and catlike eyes. But those eyes glare at the camera, hard and serious. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, yet at that point she’d been dead for twenty-five years.            All of the stories mentioned that scientists had begun doing research on Henrietta’s children, but the Lackses didn’t seem to know what that research was for. They said they were being tested to see if they had the cancer that killed Henrietta, but according to the reporters, scientists were studying the Lacks family to learn more about Henrietta’s cells. The stories quoted her son Lawrence, who wanted to know if the immortality of his mother’s cells meant that he might live forever too. But one member of the family remained voiceless: Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.            As I worked my way through graduate school studying writing, I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story. At one point I even called directory assistance in Baltimore looking for Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, but he wasn’t listed. I had the idea that I’d write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came from—someone’s daughter, wife, and mother.            I couldn’t have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decadelong adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. While trying to make sense of the history of cell culture and the complicated ethical debate surrounding the use of human tissues in research, I’d be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall both physically and metaphorically, and I’d eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism. I did eventually meet Deborah, who would turn out to be one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known. We’d form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine.            Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant; Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South. I tended to leave the room when religion came up in conversation because it made me uncomfortable; Deborah’s family tended toward preaching, faith healings, and sometimes voodoo. She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students. I was a science journalist who referred to all things supernatural as “woo-woo stuff”; Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its paths. Including me.            “How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing this book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.            The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Bookclub Guide

Now an HBO® Film starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERHer 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.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?

Editorial Reviews

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLEREntertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of the Year New Yorker Reviewers’ FavoriteAmerican Library Association Notable Book People Top Ten Book of the YearWashington Post Book World Top Ten Book of the Year Best Book of the YearUSA Today Ten Books We Loved ReadingO, The Oprah Magazine Top Ten Book of the YearNational Public Radio Best of the BestsellersBoston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year  Financial Times Nonfiction FavoriteLos Angeles Times Critics’ PickBloomberg Top Nonfiction New York magazine Top Ten Book of the Favorite Book of the Top Ten Book of the YearDiscover magazine 2010 Must-ReadPublishers Weekly Best Book of the YearLibrary Journal Top Ten Book of the YearKirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the YearU.S. News & World Report Top Debate-Worthy BookBooklist Top of the List—Best Nonfiction BookNew 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 of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.” —“A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.” —Washington Post“Riveting...a tour-de-force debut.” —Chicago Sun-Times“A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine . . . The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds.” —Nature“A jaw-dropping true story . . . raises urgent questions about race and research for ‘progress’ . . . an inspiring tale for all ages.” —Essence“This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology.” —The New Yorker  “Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easilyexplained away.” —SF Weekly “One of the great medical biographies of our time.” —The Financial Times  “Like any good scientific research, this beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched book raises nearly as many questions as it answers . . . In a time when it’s fashionable to demonize scientists, Skloot generously does not pin any sins to the lapels of the researchers. She just lets them be human . . . [and] challenges much of what we believe of ethics, tissue ownership, and humanity.” —Science  “Indelible . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism.” —Laura Miller,  “No dead woman has done more for the living . . . a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.” —Hilary Mantel, The Guardian (U.K.) “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do.” —Dallas Morning News“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.” —Boston Globe “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  “Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks.” —Newsweek“Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Skloot] is determined not to. This biography ensures that she will never again be reduced to cells in a petri dish: she will always be Henrietta as well as HeLa.” —The Telegraph (U.K.) “Brings the Lacks family alive . . . gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing.” —Baltimore Sun“A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells.” —Los Angeles Times “In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life.” —Mother Jones “More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write . . . Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating . . . a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives . . . packed with memorable characters.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Ten Book of 2010 “Astonishing . . .No matter how much you may know about basic biology, you will be amazed by this book." —The Journal of Clinical Investigation“Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly . . . A riveting narrative that is wholly original.” —THEROOT.COM “Moving . . .” —The Economist “Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in U.S. medical research.” —TIME “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine.” —Vogue “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.” —National Public Radio “An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells.” —Philadelphia Inquirer “As much an act of justice as one of journalism.” —Seattle Times “A stunning book . . . surely the definitive work on the subject.” —The Independent(U.K.) “Graceful . . . I can’t think of a better way to capture the corrosive effects of ethical transgressions in medical research. It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully rendered.” —The Lancet “Read this . . . By letting the Lackses be people, and by putting them in the center of the history, Skloot turns just another tale about the march of progress into a complicated portrait of the interaction between science and human lives. —BOINGBOING.NET “[A] remarkable and moving book . . . a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells.” —The Times (U.K.) “I can’t imagine a better tale. A detective story that’s at once mythically large and painfully intimate. I highly recommend this book.” —Jad Abumrad, Radiolab “Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.” —The Globe and Mail (Canada) “A rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender,medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer that can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling.” —Seed “Powerful story . . . I feel moved even to say on behalf of the thousands of anonymous black men and women who’ve been experimented on for medical purposes, thank you. Thank you for writing this important book.” —Kali-AhsetAmen, Radio Diaspora “Skloot has written an important work of immersive nonfiction that brings not only the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa once more into line, but also catharsis to a family in sore need of it.” —The Times Literary Supplement “A masterful work of nonfiction . . . a real page turner.” —Hanna Rosin, Slate “Skloot explores human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine’s inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave.” —US News & World Report “Remarkably balanced and nonjudgmental . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will leave readers reeling, plain and simple. It has a power and resonance rarely found in any genre, and is a subject that touches each of us, whether or not we are aware of our connection to Henrietta’s gift.” —The Oregonian “This is the perfect book. It reads like a novel but has the intellectual substance of a science textbook or a historical biography.” —The Daily Nebraskan “Illuminates what happens when medical research is conducted within an unequal health-care system and delivers an American narrative fraught with intrigue, tragedy, triumph, pathos, and redemption.” —MS.“A tremendous accomplishment —a tale of important science history that reads like a terrific novel.” —Kansas City Star “Good science writing isn’t easy, but Skloot makes it appear so.” —The Wichita Eagle “Encompasses nearly every hot-button issue currently surrounding the practice of medicine.” —Madison Capital Times “Defies easy categorization . . . as unpredictable as any pulp mystery and as strange as any science fiction.” —Willamette Week “An achievement . . . navigates both the technical and deeply personal sides of the HeLa story with clarity and care.” —The Portland Mercury “[A] remarkable book.” —London Review of Books  “An essential reminder that all human cells grown in labs across the world, HeLa or otherwise, came from individuals with fears, desires, and stories to tell.” —Chemical & Engineering News  “Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien.” —Chicago Tribune “Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner.” —British Medical Journal “Thrilling and original nonfiction that refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. It is equal parts popular science, historical biography, and detective novel.” —Ed Yong, DISCOVER.COM “Best book I’ve read in years.” —Brian Sullivan, Fox Business Network “Thanks to Rebecca Skloot, we may now remember Henrietta—who she was, how she lived, how she died.” —The New Republic “We need more writers like Rebecca Skloot.” —E.O.Wilson