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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

Average Customer Rating

4.3 (4011 )
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  •  
    Falling4Hanakapiai 04-27-10 Member Since 2009
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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.

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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
  •  
    Patti Chittenango, NY, United States 12-27-12
    Patti Chittenango, NY, United States 12-27-12 Member Since 2003
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    "Never Realized This Could Happen"

    Having grown up in the north, I never realized the abuses people of color were routinely put through. Being a health care professional, I found this to be a fascinating tale of how some of our best health care solutions were discovered. And to have a connection between these two added further interest.

    The fault of the book was that it tried to be both a novel as well as a history lesson. Either one would have been good enough but to try to combine the efforts did a disservice to both. It went on at times into details that were interesting but not what I cared about.

    The narration was fine to the point that I can say nothing positive or negative about it.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    KismetKat11 Evanston, IL USA 11-27-12
    KismetKat11 Evanston, IL USA 11-27-12 Member Since 2007
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    "Very enlightening, sadly...."

    I really enjoyed this novel. I was a Biology undergrad and never heard of Henrietta Lacks. What a shame that her family has been treated as they have. It's also shocking to learn that we do not (still do not) own what happens to things removed from our bodies by doctors. Are we supposed to ask for these items to ensure they aren't used for things we wouldn't approve of. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for bettering the common good. But, unfortunately most doctors are no longer in it for the common good. It's all about money. Anyway, it's very educational while still being an interesting read. Kudos!

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tracy Oxnard, CA, United States 04-06-12
    Tracy Oxnard, CA, United States 04-06-12 Member Since 2010
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    "reading for my book club"
    What made the experience of listening to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks the most enjoyable?

    I just started this book yesterday, and it's quite interesting. I'll finish part 1 tomorrow and look forward to the rest of the book.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Janet S. Bessemer Reno, Nevada 10-27-11
    Janet S. Bessemer Reno, Nevada 10-27-11 Member Since 2004
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    "painful"

    Painful to listen to, excruciatingly drawn out. The "life of Henrietta Lacks" would have made a good magazine article. I am within an hour and a half of finishing this and have managed to get through it by listening to a chapter a day. I keep hoping for it to get better. It is "the story of Henrietta Lacks's children." I don't see how the story of these children who do not even remember their mother is at all relevant to (a) Henrietta's life or (b) the science of the cells. I don't care about Deborah's hives or whether her son is in jail for robbery. Most of these children most of time are caught up in their belief that they have a right to be compensated for the modern day use of Henrietta's cells. Deborah, the central family figure portrayed, is a drama queen plain and simple and it is painful to listen to "the Book of Deborah."
    I can't understand all of the high ratings. When this many people differ from what I think I have to give weight to the opinion of the others in considering that I may be wrong about this book but in any case this is my opinion.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    nursebettyknitting Boise, ID USA 08-06-10
    nursebettyknitting Boise, ID USA 08-06-10 Member Since 2010

    knitting fiend

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Boring..."

    I love to read about history of medicine, but could not get into it. Could not get into narrator's excitement - in my opinion she sounds like she is in continuous emotional climax; stopped listening after two thirds of Part 1.

    1 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sheila Las Vegas, NV, USA 02-17-10
    Sheila Las Vegas, NV, USA 02-17-10 Member Since 2007
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    "Riveting!"

    A must-read for any thinking individual.

    1 of 5 people found this review helpful
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