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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. (From the publisher’s website)
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, in vitro fertilization, 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.
Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 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. It’s a story 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’re made of.
Winner of several awards, including the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Excellence in Science Writing, the 2011 Audie Award for Best Non-Fiction Audiobook, and a Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was featured on over 60 critics’ best of the year lists. For more reviews, praise, and media coverage of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, please the book’s press page. Also explore the resources found throughout this site for book groups, classrooms, and more. (From the author’s website)
Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31 from a very serious case of cervical cancer, a case that doctors believe was made more serious because of the syphilis virus which was brought home to her by her husband. One day, Henrietta knew something was wrong “down there” and probed herself to see if she could find something. She found a rock-hard mass just inside her cervical opening. The next thing she did was visit a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The doctor confirmed her findings, and later, before removing the growth, took a sample of Henrietta’s cancerous tissue and surrounding healthy tissue.
The year was 1951, and the science of cell culturing was in its infancy. The doctor who took the tissue samples from Henrietta tried to culture both tissue types. The healthy tissue died almost immediately, but the cancer tissue grew, and grew, and grew. In fact, Henrietta’s cancer cells grew so quickly, doubling about every 24 hours, that researchers were immediately fascinated with her cells. These were the first cells that this researcher, Henrietta’s doctor, had successfully grown in culture. When the researcher found that Henrietta’s cells grew very well, he developed methods to ship live tissue samples and started sharing Henrietta’s cells with other researchers around the world.
Henrietta’s cells are among the most researched cells on the planet, and came to be known as HeLa (derived from Henrietta’s name: HEnrietta LAcks). These cells became so important to the field of medical research that they also became one of the first cell lines to be commercially produced, making a number of biological supply companies billions of dollars. These cells were also used to produce vaccines, drugs, medical treatments, and medical tests-all of which made people and companies a lot of money. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family and descendants could not afford health insurance to pay for the advances in medical care their wife’s, mother’s, grandmother’s, and great-grandmother’s cells helped to make possible.
This issue leads to one of the most fascinating questions in this book: Should individuals have the right to control their tissues after they are separated from their bodies? Also, if individuals are granted that right, should they also be compensated if it is found that those tissues are scientifically and commercially valuable? Even today, scientists and researchers can purchase vials of Henrietta’s cells for $200 to $10,000 each. Should Henrietta’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren receive a cut of those profits?
Rebecca Skloot worked on this book for a long, long time, and the book made its way to #1 on Amazon.com in 2010. It is at once fascinating, infuriating, emotional, heart-wrenching, and beautiful in its description of the person behind the HeLa cell line. It tells the story of Henrietta’s children and their struggle to find out what exactly happened to their mother. It also discusses the good that can come out of one person’s pain and suffering-the price of becoming immortal.
Contains some mild language and disturbing recollections of physical and sexual abuse of children.
Click the link to purchase your copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks