The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is both a story of scientific progress and a biography of the poor Southern family whose matriarch, Henrietta Lacks, made that progress possible. It is also a critical exploration of the interplay between science, race, class, and ethics in the United States. Finally, it is, at times, the personal narrative of Rebecca Skloot, a reporter who worked for 10 years to learn these stories and to tell them. Cassandra Campbell’s performance captures the full range of tone in these elegantly woven narratives. She delivers what the story demands of her, uniting several storytelling styles into one single, dynamic voice.
In her narration, Campbell makes particularly masterful use of distance and proximity. At some points in the story, she has the cool tone of an investigative reporter, duly noting the gruesome evidence of patient mistreatment at the Hospital for the Negro Insane in the 1950s or the horrors of medical malpractice in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. When she tells the stories of the members of the Lacks family, her voice is warm and compassionate, but still carries the distinct distance of a biographer/observer. And, at a few rare but poignant moments in the story, Campbell’s voice sounds exposed and intimately close to the listener’s ear, as the narrative brings us inside Skloot’s own struggle to understand and cope with the uncomfortable truths and thorny issues Henrietta’s story raises.
Bahni Turpin, who performs the dialogue for all the members of the Lacks family, supplies those voices with more than the appropriate dialect. Though she speaks for several different characters some of them appear only briefly or infrequently in the story Turpin manages to give unique weight and depth to each. Her portrayal of Zacharia Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest son, is perhaps most exceptional in its taciturn conveyance of anger, love, and pain. Emily Elert
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 60 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 bombs 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 Henriettas 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 20 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.
©2010 Rebecca Skloot; (P)2010 Random House
"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time…The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks…floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain.…it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)
"Writing with a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force." (Booklist)
"Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about 'faith, science, journalism, and grace.'...A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people." (Publishers Weekly)
It's hard to imagine that so much scientific research and advancement in medicine could come from the cells of one person. Skoolt exposes this story with loving detail, and helps us understand where the personal history of one family and science meet. All I can say is thank you, and bravo for a book so well written. And thank you to Lacks family for having the courage to trust and share their story after being taken advantage of by so many others.
The audio book was narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, both of which I first experienced in the phenomenal book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I remain impressed with their skills of narration, and will start perusing their lists of audio books more frequently.
This book was absolutely fascinating. Miss Skloot was able to re-humanize an important aspect of science who had been objectified and exploited from the start, but to the overall benefit and evolution of medical science, its ethics and practice. The Immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) as the medium, has had a profound impact on biological studies, the likes for which the entire world could and should be grateful.
This is not just a recollection of scientific and biological history, but a biography of Henrietta's legacy. The book also offers a valuable snapshot of the dismissive and often cruel nature of race relations and segregation that took place as little as 60 years ago. Though she and her family suffered greatly, I am glad to know of Mrs. Lacks. I'm also thankful for what she and the scientific community has done for me, my friends, family, and the world.
This book was easy to listen to, understand, and follow. I highly recommend this audio book!
Short, Simple, No Spoilers
Never heard of Henrietta Lacks and her eternal (hela) cells? Me either, and the story is fascinating. The book has several story lines: Henrietta's life; her cells and medical advances; Henrietta's family present day; Daughter, Deborah's struggle to find the truth; and the author, Rebecca Skloot's precarious journey to write the book. All roads run simultaneously and fluidly exploring each facet and staying the course to tell this amazing story.
Cells taken without Henrietta's knowledge, have been used for over 50 years to find cures for cancer, create drugs to combat AIDS, grow corneas, and too many positives to list. She was misdiagnosed on numerous occasions as a cancer patient; never gave consent for experimentation; and her family never received any royalties from the millions of dollars made from the creation, sale, and advancement achieved by testing her cells. The scientific explanation is interesting and easy to understand. The author does a good job of stating the facts mixed with the appropriate amount of emotion, but does not swing too far one way and isn't preachy or judgmental. The education in this book reaches beyond science and sheds light on how African Americans around Johns Hopkins may have been mistreated and/or used for experimental procedures and the evolving friendship between daughter, Deborah and Rebecca was tender, a little nutty, funny, and life-changing for the both of them. Narrator does a fantastic job.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. Yes, it is a book about science; and you will understand it. It is a book about a family; and you will love them. It is a book that honestly explores racism;and you will cringe. It is a book about a tenacious reporter; and you will know this was her book to write....The narration is exceptional. This book will inspire you, break your heart, and teach you. Buy the book , use your credit, you will not regret getting this great read.
Incredibly engaging and given that this history has so much to do with all humans alive today; also for anyone we know who has not died from a curable infection or certain cancers and that fewer and fewer people die from diseases that are now almost eradicated in many parts of the world, suffering and death are at an all time low due to this amazing woman's cells.
I want to thank Rebecca Skloot for her tenacity and without her willingness to give so much of HER life to telling the truth on this story; we would be forever ignorant to such an important and integral part of all our lives.
The story is one of innocence, intrigue and all out war; a fight that the Lacks family may never win, but with public outcry, and this book; I believe that this part of her story may very well change.
I think that there will always be pushback from the medical and scientific community, when it comes to our rights about our bodies and as human beings. Also, some of the issues raised in this book will be ones we will be addressing for the next few hundred years! I believe that these and others we can not even comprehend; will be issues that societies as a whole will hotly debate and those societies woes in this area will carry on debates of one kind or other for all time.
I highly recommend this book it is truly one that will be cited in history books and should be used (and most likely will be) in all medical and school curriculums.
This was an outstanding listen, with superb narration. I was impressed with Rebecca Skloot's remarkable powers of observation and objectivity, and found it refreshing not to be walloped by a writer's agenda.
I was expecting the science story to be intriguing, and it is, but the interweaving of the Lacks family members into the fabric of the narrative is masterful. The real-life events of Henrietta's children held me in a grip, and often kept me listening long past the points I planned to pause.
I have spent the last few days glued to my iPod until its battery ran down (twice), with this book.
This is one of the most compelling books I have ever read -well-written, with subject matter unbelievable and staggering in its implications for medicine.
Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31 at Johns Hopkins in 1951, in the black ward, of cervical cancer. Her doctor retrieved a tissue sample from her cervix --something researchers do routinely -- to place the cells into a culture. Such cells were increasingly useful in the new field of virology.
Henrietta's cells lived, and they named this new cell line HeLa, using first letters from both of her names. HeLa cells were so robust, and replicated so fast, that their use has revolutionized medicine and lab research. They are the most commonly used research cells in the world. And for over 30 years, her family never knew or understood their importance.
Science writer Rebecca Skloot is wonderful with the clarity of her scientific explanations for the layman, and the timeline of important scientific events and discoveries made by the use of HeLa cells. The family's story is very moving. And her examination of the legal and moral ramifications of human tissue handling is even-handed and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.
I thought the weaving of the different characters was expertly done, loved the audible interview with the author at the end. great read - couldn't stop listening!
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.
Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.
Voted the Best of 2010 in Science and Technology, I am so glad this book got the recognition it so richly deserved. The author is a science/medical writer. But, I think, a mistake was made in the category in which it was placed. Were it in the category of nonfiction, I think more folks would think about reading it. The science part of the book is wonderful and approachable by anyone. But this is not a science or technology book per se nor, do I think, is science the best part of the book. It is a book more about ethics and the law. It is a book, I believe, mostly about our humanity and in that regard, I cannot find a better book in this year or in many others before it. The book is a superbly written and exquisitely narrated.
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