Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey in search of Henrietta's story, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Full of warmth and questing intelligence, astonishing in scope and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
©2009 Rebecca Skloot (P)2010 Random House, inc
I loved the layering of experience: the story of Henrietta herself, the utterly compelling narrative of the destiny of the HeLa cells, the story of Skloot's own search, and then the moving narrative of the descendants of Lacks.
I also listened to The Help this year, and think there is something to be gleaned from these two extended works about the healing power of storytelling. While I often shrink back from white people telling black people's stories, both these books actually tackle this problem head on, exploring the problem of who is telling whose story and why. Restoration through narrative.
She was one of the narrators in The Help apparently (must have been that weird third person section?) Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed her reading.
A story of science that comes from the heart.
I found this a very interesting history about the people involved in changing the face of biology as we know it. From the family and their experiences of being involved in the process to the scientists. Ethical practices have changed over time and it is interesting to consider whether the same thing could happen today.
The story is fascinating in and of itself, but it seems that the author cannot really decide whether to go for good story-telling or scientific accuracy. The result is an enjoyable, but somewhat wobbly book. The real problem herr lies in the narrator. Far too grating and un-nuanced a voice for my taste.
"Extremely over hyped, and in no way a science book"
I went into this having read many positive reviews, and I expected a in depth story into the scientific breakthroughs which resulted from the discovery of HeLa cells.
Instead what I got was an in depth story of how the writer of this book struggled to research the history of the person from whom these cells were drawn - Henrietta Lacks. It's incredibly self indulgent, and spends literally hours on how diligent the author was. The rest is all about the life (and death) of Henrietta and her family. Aside from her remarkable cells, the life of Henrietta was unremarkable in the extreme (for the time), and this book could have simply been a general history of the lot of poor, ultra religious African Americans in the deep south in the 1940s and 50s.
There is virtually no science in this book at all, so if science is what interests you, this book will not. I also found the narrator extremely irritating, as she spends much of her time either attempting (and failing horribly) to do deep south African American accents, or adding quivers and shakes to her voice during emotional moments in the text. It's one of the worst readings of a book I've yet encountered on Audible, and I've listened to a lot of audiobooks.
"An interesting read"
I enjoyed the book on the whole. I found the science and the story of Henrietta really interesting. I have to say I did find the story of the author and her involvement with the family a bit self indulgent and tedious at times. I think the interesting story makes up for the negatives and I would recommend reading it.
I was really moved by this book. I had heard of HeLa cells before, having studied and worked in medical science for most of my career, but I had never heard the real story behind them. Apart from being a great read the book raises a lot of questions about bioethics, fairness and the injustices of the past. Definitely a story that needed to be told!
"balance of science and social history"
This topic is fascinating. The author attempts to bring together rather scientifically technical information about how a poor American black women's cells became useful in biomedical science and changed the world against the background of her impoverished society.
The book alternates between science and social history.
As a science orientated person I was impressed to note how clearly and accurately the young writer explained how Henrietta Lack's cells became immortal such that they are still dividing now, over 50 years later. Their ability to proliferate has accelerated cell biology proving useful to mankind in many ways. These were my favourite chapters which unfortunately were in the minority.
The story of Henrietta and her family bring social interest contrasting with a high tech world but I found this too meandering. I felt sorry for the inexperienced author having to deal with Henrietta's family who suffered physical, cognitive, educational and psychiatric disadvantages that she lacked the experience to interpret. Overall they were more a report on how she wrote the book than of the people themselves.
Finally, I would enjoy a little more philosophy which did emerge to some extent during the discussions of tissue ownership.
A little bit of humour would have been my own choice to lift the worrying and depressing passages where she tries to stay on the right side of poor fragile people with paranoid manic psychoses. I suspect she refrained through respect.
Overall, definitely worth a listen.
The narrator relayed the story rather than told it herself.
well written and really amazing story - quite a unique experience listening to it.
Some interesting general history that every one should know plus the unique sorry overlaid
A bit academic, but a great listen. I may have given up if reading it as quite a lot of technical bits.
I do like an interesting factual book, occasionally.
"Fascinating...and I don't really like science"
This is unlike anything else I have read. It is hugely enjoyable and the narration superb. Read it and enjoy.
loved the book and the narration. it has really opened my eyes about research. a must read.
Nice narration, got off to a good start, but sadly I lost interest. I bought this as it is a read for my book club and thought at first I was on to a winner. Medical bits at first are interesting but then get to scientific - mish mash book - for me, not enough Henrietta and a bit too much science.
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