The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot
(Crown Publishing Group (NY), Hardcover, 9781400052172, 369pp.)

Publication Date: February 2, 2010

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Description

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? 
          
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.




About the Author
REBECCA SKLOOT is an award-winning science writer and the best-selling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.


NPR
Friday, Feb 12, 2010

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks' 'immortal cells' — cells taken from a tumor on her cervix and kept alive to multiply in laboratories around the world — and how Lacks' children discovered their connection to the cells. More at NPR.org

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NPR
Sunday, Feb 7, 2010

Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman and mother of five, never knew that she revolutionized medicine. Shortly before she died of cancer in 1951, doctors took a tissue sample from her — without her permission. Those cells became the first human cells to gain "immortality" — replicating themselves in laboratories long after Henrietta Lacks died. Host Guy Raz talks to science journalist Rebecca Skloot about her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. More at NPR.org

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NPR
Tuesday, Feb 2, 2010

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died after a long battle with cervical cancer. Doctors cultured her cells without permission from her family. The story of those cells — known as HeLa cells, in Lacks' honor — and of the medical advances that came from them, is told in Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. More at NPR.org

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