Audible Member Since 2003
Rebecca Skloot spent ten years of her life researching and writing this book. At the time she had no way of knowing just what she was getting herself into.
The HeLa cell line is one of the most important and studied subjects in the world of medicine and biology, but practically nothing was known about the person from which these cells were named, Henrietta Lacks. In fact, for years even the name Henrietta Lacks was intentionally obscured by the fictitious names of Helen Lane or Helen Larson.
Skloot was a young student at the time she became interested in the mostly anonymous Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 from a terribly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells were extracted, without permission or informed consent, becoming for all purposes the first line of "immortal" human cells living outside of the host body. The author decided to attempt to put a human face on the donor of the cells which played a vital part in such scientific advances as in the cure for polio, aids research, genetic discoveries, cancer cures, drug developments, to name just a few. However, learning the true story of the Lacks family two generations after the death of Henrietta turned out to be quite the daunting venture as Skloot tenaciously uncovers layers of family suffering, mistrust, ignorance and exploitation.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a real-life story of family and all that goes along with it, good and bad. It is in-part a tale of mystery that walks into real human drama, tackling many difficult issues of racism, bio-ethics, privacy and profiteering.
This book is perfectly narrated and is one of the best audio books I have encountered in quite some time. Do not miss this one!
Avid reader of classics and fiction, history and well-written genre novels. Music lover and huge audiobook fan.
This is one of the best audiobooks I have heard in a long time. FIrst of all the readers are so wonderful it transforms the experience into theater. The story is about science and ethics but is even more the story of a family and how it is affected by the discovery that the cells of a mother that died in 1951 go on living today. The cell donor was 29 when she died leaving five children. Her cell line was the first to be kept alive and replicating after her death from cervical cancer in 1951. Apparently her family didn't know anyone had taken a tissue sample. Her children lacked the money to visit the doctor but their dead mother's cells went to the moon and were part of the discovery of a polio vaccine and many other important medical discoveries. It is stunning to see how badly the subjects of medical research were treated such a short time ago. THis book would be an engaging story for people with many divergent interests. Highly recommended."
What an eye opener. The history of our discovery and exploitation of genetic material is fascinating and more complex than I had imagined. Skloot covers the subject from all angles.The chronological and technical aspect is informative. The ethical observations raised through the study of the Lacks family are both clinical and personal. As we race to find cures for disease and better understand ourselves at the genetic level, we forget that it couldn't be possible without the most important component of the research process - human genetic material.
Worth a second listen. Thank you Ms Skloot.
I'm a country potter, gardener, flute player and tin tinker living with my husband, an electrical engineer & cabinet maker.
This book is worth 2 listens. What of our bodies do we own? How can we say "liberty and justice for all" in a country where corporations own the genes and even the tissue of our brains that allow formation of the words? The author brings Henrietta's family into focus and also provides a great deal of medical and legal background for HeLa cells.
A Heartbreaking story that details the illogical justification used by scientists and the market establishment they created to reason away that an individual's biological material is not their own or something they can uniquely own and patent or trademark but instead can only be patented and trademarked by a scientist or corporation (manufactured individual). This woman from America's racial and economic underclass's unique and special biological cells pioneered science and are now sold as the property of a corporation. She died in poverty and her progenitors and spouse struggled and suffered greatly as the medical and science establishment exploited their ignorance while making huge advancements and wealth with the immortal cells of this poor woman without even giving proper public credit or respect.
Exceptionally well wrought!! A history, biology and genealogical story cleverly wrapped in well narrated format. I truly enjoyed this listen and appreciated the author's painstaking patience with the Lacks family and the in-depth explanation of the HELA cell's science. It's hard to imagine a biology lesson being presented in any better arrangement. Thanks and BRAVO Rebecca!
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore who had cancer in the early 1950's. Her cancerous cells had the ability to be cultured and grown - an ability that is not present in most cells. The rare ability for these cells to be grown in culture provided a cell line that was used in the creation of the polio vaccine and numerous other cures. The cells themselves did not provide the cure, the cells provided a means in which researchers could study a disease and develope a cure. The book was written because for years, the identity of the donor of these cells was only known as Hela. Neither Henrietta or anyone in her family received and compensation or, until relatively recently, any notoriety for these cells. The author fairly protrays that, for the era in which these cells were obtained, there was nothing wrong, illegal or underhanded going on. Procedures such as informed consent were non existent in the 1950's. I was left with the feeling that the Lack's family should receive some compensation for Henrietta's cells. Not because they have a legal right to compensation (which is questionable) but because it is the right thing to do.
Although the book is supposed to be about Henrietta, almost half (sometimes seemed like more) of the book is about one of Henrietta's daughters. This may interest those who develop a personal interest in the Lacks clan, but has little to do with the cells and was distracting.
You will be disappointed if you want to learn about the cells themselves, as the author only provides general descriptions and there is little technical information provided...this book is about people. That being said, there are some very good sections where the truly unethical behavior of doctors using these and other cells is described. They are quite disturbing stories.
The last hour of the book is a discussion by the author over the ethics of cells and tissues and who really owns them.
I found the premise of this non-fiction book fascinating. It teased the idea of immortality as a possibly attainable thing and teased that one woman's cells were responsible for some of the most important advances in medicine. But after reading the book it became clear that these teases were for dramatic effect and, while not untrue per se, take the facts out of context. Lacks' cells aren't immortal really. Rather, the amazingly aggressive cancer cells that killed Lacks are "immortal". And those cells aren't really immortal either, they still need to be maintained to be kept alive and multiplying. As a by-product, those cancer cells contain Lacks' DNA. And to be clear, the cancer cells haven't caused the advances in medicine. The scientists who developed the processes and treatments were the heroes. But it helped to have an aggressive, self-replicating virus to make experimentation easier.
Other problems I had with this book were the needless details about Lacks' relatives. I understand that due to the stubborness of the family, they wouldn't consent to the writing of the book without some of this information being brought out. They wanted Lacks' story to be told (but they also wanted to sue people for violating her privacy when they tried to put Lacks' name and family DNA information in medical journals - ???).
However, some of the information is simply filler (the fact that one of Lacks' children went to prison for murder is a complete waste of time). The only reason why I believe Skloot put these stories in is because, as she admitted, she had a sheltered life prior to her experience with the Lacks family and this was her first time actually interacting with members of another race and lower socio-economic means than what she was used to. She found it interesting.
Towards the end of the book Skloot even tries to defend her reasoning for putting this information in the book. It comes off as apologetic, which seems that someone (possibly her publisher or editor) tried to tell her it was a bad idea. She should have listened.
But the biggest issue I had with the book also happened towards the end of the book. Skloot shifts her telling of events to include herself as a participant. She begins to tell the reader about some of her research and interacting with Lacks' family. The entire tone of the book changes and it almost sounds like a fictional novel. Skloot writes more than just about going to certain facilities and speaking with people. She goes on about her feelings and, at one point, has a religious experience. It's unimportant, self aggrandizing and damages any impartiality that she had about any of her research. It also caused me to question how impartial she was in the conveying of any of the information in the book. In an age when fair and balanced journalism seems to be harder to find each day Skloot should be ashamed of this particular writing choice.
I picked up this book for the possible scientific information inside and about Lacks as a curious by-product. I presumed that a certain amount of information about Lacks' history was necessary to give the book a human aspect that would prevent it from becoming a scientific journal bore. However, I didn't buy this book to hear about the shenanigans Lacks' children got into after she passed away or about Skloot.
You'd be better off reading the free Wikipedia entry (if you still feel like spending, donate to the website). You'll save time and get a clearer understanding of the facts.
This is partially a biography of Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951 of cancer. It is also a story of medical ethics and science. Reading the story through contemporary eyes I can easily see the injustice of the situation. However, tissue has been taken from me following surgery and other proceedures and used in someway(s) - forever unknown. This was not the Tuskegee syphillis sort of misrepresentation, but the deception (real or imagined; by design or default) had dramatic effects on the family and heirs.
The most moving passages for me involved the adjustments that various family members were forced to make as a result of learning of Ms. Lacks' circumstances. The narrative enabled me to understand the ingredulity and misperceptions linked one to the other.
Other sections relating the ethical issues raised by this situation and the subsequent institutional responses are very timely, contemporary , and important.
Well read, clearly written, and informative. This is a very good book deserving of every listener's attention.
Probably not. The Performance was fine, the writing was pretty good, but it needed to be cut in half. Some of the authors basic concepts were a little misleading.
She kept trying to make it a social issue. While there are certainly social implications, the bare facts are that Ms Lacks got cervical cancer, which was treated for free by Hopkins, and some of the Cancer cells (not really her, but her cancer) turned out to be an immortal cell line that was distributed (more or less free or at cost) by Hopkins to further research in medicine. While some people profited from use of the cell line, its quite a stretch to saying that Ms Lacks or her family should have made a profit off her misfortune.