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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This is a necessary book - aside from informing us about what seems today like the the dark ages of cancer research and the reported unfair treatment of minorities by the medical community in the era of Henrietta Lacks, it's time we all became more enlightened as to the fate of our body products once we part with them in a doctor's office, lab or hospital. This book raises important issues as to the space required for storage of all discarded tissue, which is unlike printed material that can be converted to digital format.
As an historical novel there are bound to be characters that are not "likable" nor relatable in the usual fictional sense. This family was troubled in many ways, in addition to the implied racial implications, the possible malpractice issues regarding the HeLa cells, and losing any financial stake in the success of the HeLa cell line. The family came to Baltimore to be part of the then growing steel industry. They were originally from a bare bones town in Virginia, having farmed their own tobacco crops after indirectly inheriting the property after being emancipated from slave status. There were some hard workers amongst the marginal characters, but basically this was a hard-strapping family who had to make do in order to survive. And several of them fell by the wayside to crime and mental dysfunction.
The book is well-written, even with the frequent disjunctions in time periods. It can be difficult to follow the genealogy and plethora of major and minor characters, and the myriad mentions of various studies. But all that is mere technicality.
The book accomplishes its goal of promoting proper documentation of, and credit for - financial or otherwise - biological tissues that are saved and used for research. It raise the question of ownership of our own tissues, and whether or not we have proprietary rights to our own bodies, in situ or in vitro.
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 am a scientist, and I enjoy reading books about science that would also appeal to the general public. This book is wonderful: I really enjoy the interweaving of science with the lives of the people in Henrietta's family. It is so interesting to learn about the history of the family, as well as about all the things that these cells have been used for, and all the things they have been involved in.
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