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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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  •  
    Lisa 03-09-13
    Lisa 03-09-13
    ratings
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    69
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    "An Amazing Story!"

    This is a story of humanity as much as it is a story about science. You get to know both the author and the family of Henrietta Lacks - their fears, joys, and watching their relationship build over time. You get a glimpse into the lives of the physicians and the institutions they are part of, and seeing how all these players interact and the story of the family behind these great advances. You'll feel their pain, and wonder how such things could have happened. And I know I came away with a better appreciation for the science that helps to keep me healthy today. This is thoroughly enjoyable, and a book I had a hard time putting down.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    chantelle 03-07-13
    chantelle 03-07-13 Member Since 2011
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Wow!"
    What did you love best about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    I stumbled onto this story while researching something else, and I can't describe the amazement that her story is not widely known in the mainstream society. I shake my head and wonder why not even during Black History Month there is never any real effort to spotlight her story and contributions. The narrating was great and the writing was awesome. The only draw back is it seems to me Rebecca skloot profited monetarily while handing crumbs to Henrietta's family I would like more follow up of them today


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    A little angry...thought provoking


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    kimberly United States 03-06-13
    kimberly United States 03-06-13 Member Since 2014
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    3
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    "aaaamazing!!!"
    Where does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    One of the best books i listened to.


    What about Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin ’s performance did you like?

    their voices were so authentic, it made listening more interesting and more informative.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    Can't tell because it would spoil the listen.


    Any additional comments?

    It is unbelievable that in a world where property owners get royalty rights for oil recovered on their land, a family has no rights to compensation for the millions made off their mother's cells.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marlene CHICAGO, IL, United States 03-02-13
    Marlene CHICAGO, IL, United States 03-02-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Engrossing, thoughtful and moving,"

    This was a deeply engrossing audio. The personal history of Henrietta Lacks, the era, and the scientific background were woven together so well I could see the interaction. The narration was real; not over-played. I could feel and see the characters. Like any really good book, I was a bit sad when I knew I was getting close to the end.

    I drive about 90 minutes a day and found myself volunteering to go out so I could get just a bit more. The science, politics and history of medical research has opened my eyes to an issue that effects everyone who has ever gone through a medical procedure or test.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Paula Overland Park, KS USA 02-22-13
    Paula Overland Park, KS USA 02-22-13 Member Since 2012

    Enjoying one good listen after the next!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Just an Amazing True Story"

    Listen to this! You must! It is a true story that will amaze, inspire, aggravate and infuriate you all at once. Just an amazing true story of one woman, her family and her contributions to medical science, although without informed consent. Loved the story, the writing and the narration. Just well done through and through.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sara Memphis, Tunisia 02-19-13
    Sara Memphis, Tunisia 02-19-13 Member Since 2010
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    "Excellent"
    Would you listen to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks again? Why?

    Yes-- I'm afraid I missed something.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

    bioethics-- it really opened my eyes to questions without answers


    Which scene was your favorite?

    The physician who told his patient with atibodies against hepatitis that his blood is valuable.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    It was fascinating. I work at a research hospital so most of what the story was about was close to home.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Moumita Rockville, MD, United States 02-14-13
    Moumita Rockville, MD, United States 02-14-13

    always like to learn something new....mostly like study of philosophy, religion and history, not only the western side of the story, but also like to investigate the other shades.

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    "best tribute to the largely unsung HERO"
    What did you like best about this story?

    This book is about development of science (history of cell-culture) and society (history of the Lacks family, and changes the Scientific Society in general); both of these strands are interwoven in a wonderful way. It is a fitting tribute to the person behind the immortal 'HeLa'


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    The story touches your heart and you can not put the book down, so yes, have to read (hear) it in one sitting


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    TS Tucson, AZ, United States 02-13-13
    TS Tucson, AZ, United States 02-13-13 Member Since 2012

    tsears

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    "Powerful and moving"
    Where does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    This is one of the best books I've listened to in quite a while.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    The author. She made it very clear her devotion to the truthfulness of the story. I love that she became a character in her own story.


    What about Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin ’s performance did you like?

    It sounded like there were many other performers. They did a great job narrating.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    I don't want to give any spoilers but the autopsy was rough for me.


    Any additional comments?

    I'd highly recommend this book. It was captivating.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kindle Customer Vancouver, WA, United States 02-11-13
    Kindle Customer Vancouver, WA, United States 02-11-13
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    "My first audible book and it was great"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be better than the print version?

    Had never listened to a book before and wanted to try it out for my mom who has seeing problems but loves books. This was an excellent story that was both amazing in how it flowed and the subject matter itself. Highly recommend.


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    We listened to this on a long drive over two days. We couldn't stop and it made the drive much faster.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pat Washington, DC, United States 02-09-13
    Pat Washington, DC, United States 02-09-13 Member Since 2011
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    "A story for anyone who has visited a Dr's office!"

    This story should be read/listened by every person who has walked into a doctors office! It's an engaging, horrific, true story set in current time and in 1950 at Johns Hopkins.

    It chronicles the life of the woman whose cancerous tissue became the first tissue in history which could be successfully grown as culture and used in various, and countless, experiments from vaccine research to cloning. Her tissue became virtually immortal. If you speak to anyone in the science world about Hela cells the response is " I used those cells for research starting in graduate school." Yet, very little was known about the woman who provided the first Hela cells herself, her life, her family, her history.... setting this author on a journey to find out and provide the reader with portraits of her family as well as an overview of medical ethics, history, culture and healthcare.

    Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman living in the suburbs of Baltimore, too poor to get good medical care,and died a horrible death,and yet she lives on.

    How can the scientific world progress so much and yet the family of Henrietta Lacks remained burdened with survival in society today trying to figure out what happened to their mother/grandmother.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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