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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | [Rebecca Skloot]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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.
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Audible Editor Reviews

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

Publisher's Summary

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

What the Critics Say

"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)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Tanya Kennesaw, GA, United States 06-16-11
    Tanya Kennesaw, GA, United States 06-16-11
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Outstanding! To Be Enjoyed By Readers Everywhere."

    This fascinating book isn't only entertaining from the standpoint of learning about the HeLa cells & Henrietta's story, but her daughter Deborah Lacks' struggle is so well-told, too. Ms. Skloot's research on this book (a decade in the making) is absolutely unbelievable and is so well explained even on the simplest level. Everyone can enjoy & learn so much from this book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in not only a hugely important part of medical history, but a look into the lives of a very endearing family.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tom Lookabaugh San Diego, CA 04-15-11
    Tom Lookabaugh San Diego, CA 04-15-11
    ratings
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    5
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    Overall
    "Boring!"

    I have seen this title on so many "best-of" lists that despite the fact that the premise didn't exactly grab me, I thought the book must be worth reading. There have been many times I've enjoyed a well-written book that didn't initially interest me but which I bought based on stellar reviews; I expected this book to be in the same category. Sadly, it's not. This is one of the most boring books I've read in a long time. Though the story of what happened to Henrietta Lacks' cells is fascinating, this author instead focuses on Lacks' uninspiring and rather dull family. The family feels cheated, for good reason, but that's the extent of the drama. There is nothing exceptional about the family, Lacks' history, or anything about this book. Though Lacks' cells were indeed exceptional the author treats that as an aside. The author explains that she wanted a unique perspective on Lacks' place in history. Fine, but that's no excuse for writing a dull book.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tina WASHINGTON, DC, United States 03-09-11
    Tina WASHINGTON, DC, United States 03-09-11 Member Since 2010
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    4
    4
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    "Fascinating"

    This is one of the best books I've read/listened to all year. Skloot paints a compassionate, 3-dimensional portrait of a person, her family and an era. The subject matter is beyond belief and will have you with your jaw on the floor several times over. You'll be in awe and horror. You'll be touched, you'll cry. You'll be indignant. You'll be inspired. The story focuses mainly on Deborah- the daughter of Henrietta Lacks. This greatly humanizes what could otherwise be a dry, bioethics case-study. I can't recommend this book highly enough-- you will learn so much.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael NAPERVILLE, IL, United States 07-13-10
    Michael NAPERVILLE, IL, United States 07-13-10 Member Since 2005
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    "Wouldn't you do it for the benefit of mankind?"

    The book taught me about the science of HeLa cells and that was the main reason I wanted to read this. I found that portion of the book very interesting. I was also moved by the tragic story of Henrietta's life. She deserved much better. However, the story seemed to drone on about the life of her descendants to the point I didn't care about them anymore. They began to annoy me with their antics to the point that the sympathy I originally had for them disappeared. I understand their socio and economic background and understand their plight but has Henrietta's daughter said, "times were different back then" and nothing was done intentionally to defraud or short-change the family.

    The last part of the book was interesting where it discussed what is happening today legally and ethically regarding the use of human tissues when they leave your body. Like Henrietta, it is something you just don't think about. As I believe Henrietta would have wished, I would hope that my discarded tissues could benefit mankind in some way.

    This was one of those books that you're already looking forward to the next before this one ends. A good book is one that as you approach the end you wish there was more. Unfortunately, this was more the former for me.

    4 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    M Shep 07-04-10
    M Shep 07-04-10
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Superb listening experience! An all-time fav."

    This book has been a thoroughly engaging listen. I kept thinking, she's told the whole story, what's going to be left for the 2d half, but it's keeps me enthralled for both parts. It's a great scientific and human interest story, in which the author deftly raises a series of important issues of science, race, class, medical and health care, economics, education, and journalism, parenting, family, loss, and mental health,

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jonnie Panama City, FL, United States 05-02-10
    Jonnie Panama City, FL, United States 05-02-10 Member Since 2007
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Good story but too long, cut it in half"

    This book could have been cut in half and the story would have been more interesting and compelling. There was way too much about the family, details that were too long and uninteresting. The remaining half, however, would make an interesting story and deserves to be told.

    6 of 12 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Falling4Hanakapiai 04-27-10 Member Since 2009
    HELPFUL VOTES
    1
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    "Shocking"

    One of the best and most important books of our time... a must read for anyone. I loved Skoot's ability to weave science with emotion and morality. Best book of the year.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Donald Seattle, WA, United States 03-30-10
    Donald Seattle, WA, United States 03-30-10
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    "More a story about family politics"

    I guess I was hoping for more science with this title, but the first half (I didn't listen to the second half) was primarily rehashing Henrietta Lacks' surviving family members' disdain for what happened to Henrietta. This topic needs more attention, more coverage, and this book is a start, but it was more drama than substance in my opinion. The narrator was fine, and the audio quality is great. I loved Demon in the Microscope, a book about germ theory/antibiotics.

    3 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Steve from MD 12-27-11 Member Since 2005
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    "Great Potential"

    I thought this would be a interesting book but it failed on almost all accounts. Great opportunity to discuss rights of individuals and their genetic code. Rights of Universities to capitalize on research and restrict indivuals. The history of cloning human cells and its implications on future research. Alas the book is mostly about a poor family who loved a family member. Avoids important issues. A complete let down.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Leah Los Angeles, CA, USA 04-29-10
    Leah Los Angeles, CA, USA 04-29-10 Member Since 2007

    We are our brothers and our sisters keepers.

    HELPFUL VOTES
    1
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    "A moral issue that should bend the law."

    If there are companies out there that have made money with the Henrietta Lacks' cells, and they don't react to this book by setting up scholarships for this family, those companies should be shut down. They are morally bankrupt.
    Well written, provocative and inspirational.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
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