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Editorial 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

Critic Reviews

"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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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Prisca
  • Emeryville, CA, USA
  • 04-30-10

Amazing Story

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.

54 of 55 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

All Roads Lead to Hela

Never heard of Henrietta Lacks and her eternal (hela) cells? Me either, and the story is fascinating. The book has several story lines: Henrietta's life; her cells and medical advances; Henrietta's family present day; Daughter, Deborah's struggle to find the truth; and the author, Rebecca Skloot's precarious journey to write the book. All roads run simultaneously and fluidly exploring each facet and staying the course to tell this amazing story.

Cells taken without Henrietta's knowledge, have been used for over 50 years to find cures for cancer, create drugs to combat AIDS, grow corneas, and too many positives to list. She was misdiagnosed on numerous occasions as a cancer patient; never gave consent for experimentation; and her family never received any royalties from the millions of dollars made from the creation, sale, and advancement achieved by testing her cells. The scientific explanation is interesting and easy to understand. The author does a good job of stating the facts mixed with the appropriate amount of emotion, but does not swing too far one way and isn't preachy or judgmental. The education in this book reaches beyond science and sheds light on how African Americans around Johns Hopkins may have been mistreated and/or used for experimental procedures and the evolving friendship between daughter, Deborah and Rebecca was tender, a little nutty, funny, and life-changing for the both of them. Narrator does a fantastic job.

46 of 47 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Thank HeLa!

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!

45 of 47 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Get This Book!!!

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.

90 of 95 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Rebecca Skloots dedication prevails

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.

29 of 30 people found this review helpful

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  • Ryan
  • Somerville, MA, United States
  • 04-14-12

Many stories in one

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, like many compelling works of nonfiction, was written to tell one story, but, in its creation, uncovered several others. On the surface, Rebecca Skloot's book is about a line of cells, extracted from a single cancer patient in the 1950s, that went on to be the most widely studied human cell line in the world. On another level, it's about an evolving debate over the medical ethics of cell and DNA ownership. How much say should patients have in the use of their own genetic material? How does society balance the needs of medical research against concerns for privacy and individual autonomy?

On still another level, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about race relations in America, about uneven levels of white privilege and black privilege when it comes to access to information and advocacy. It's a story about casual exploitation by a scientific establishment that was trained to compartmentalize and not think of its work in personal terms. Finally, it's a story of a family struggling to find emotional and spiritual closure after the years following the death of their mother, who continues in a strange and somewhat mystifying afterlife.

If the book had simply been about science and ethical questions pertaining to the cells of Henrietta Lacks, I might not have found it more than mildly interesting, but the human element gives the story many more dimensions. I think Skloot did an excellent and honest job of conveying how one poor, black family from the rural South perceives science and medicine. Of course, they understand and care about the basic things that most Americans do, but their views are colored by a history and identity that, I, a well-educated, middle-class white northerner, simply haven't lived in. It was a fascinating and ultimately hopeful exploration beyond stereotypes and into how human beings really relate to questions that can never be entirely viewed in clinical, medical terms. You get to know Henrietta's extended family, and to view her life and unintended contribution to science as they do.

Overall, the book felt like an extended episode of This American Life, in that it didn’t explore (or resolve) any issue in great depth, but was engagingly put together and taught me a little about a lot of different subjects. Since it’s not a long read, I’d say it’s well-deserving of its awards and your time.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Tina
  • Novato, CA, United States
  • 02-26-10

Powerful, beautiful, fascinating, important book

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.

61 of 66 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Jessica
  • Gardner, KS, USA
  • 05-04-10

Great Listen

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!

15 of 16 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Holly
  • Austin, TX, USA
  • 04-02-10

Non-fiction at its best

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.

23 of 25 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 08-10-13

The Secret Life of an American Cancer Cell

About a month ago, I donated blood at the American Red Cross. I'm there about every other month - or exactly at 56 days, depending on how persistent those cheerful calls, with their underlying tone of urgency, are. Last time I was there, there was an addition to the binder of forms I needed to review: a disclosure that my blood could be used for research, and if I didn't agree to that, I shouldn't donate.

I was puzzled: why the consent now, since Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" had been published in 2010? I hadn't read the book, but I had followed the debate about informed consent. I didn't really think about how the Lacks family felt about Henrietta's cells (called HeLa) living in labs twice as long as Henrietta herself did. I sure didn't think about HeLa economics.

On June 13, 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Docket 12-398. On August 7, 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced that they had reached an agreement with Henrietta's descendants to use HeLa cells with the informed consent of a board, including two of her family members.

I heard an interview with Skloot shortly after on NPR, and decided it was time to read/listen to "The Immortal Life." I was astounded by the sheer tenacity of HeLa cells (cancer cells from an especially aggressive form of cervical cancer caused by one of the HPV viruses, strengthened by untreated neuro-syphillis) and by the research and discoveries based on those cells. HeLa was instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine, tests to identify cancer, studies on chemical toxicity . . . and so much more. When I checked PubMed as I wrote this review, there were 76,057 peer reviewed articles with HeLa mentioned in the abstracts.

Skloot's careful research, wonderfully descriptive writing, and absolute respect for the Lacks family was evident. Skloot described the family and some of its very memorable members, especially Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who really wanted to know the HeLa story - but was also afraid to find out everything, for good reason. Skloot avoids a sociological analysis of the Lacks family, which is good - that would have made them a 'study', not real people. There was an overarching irony: despite the invaluable contribution Henrietta made to medicine, most of her surviving family did not have medical insurance.

Skloot was careful to use the actual dialect and pronunciations of the people she interviewed in the Audible book. I don't know how it looked in writing, but it made a good listen. The narrators, Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, worked well together.

I'll still donate blood, of course - but from now, my imagination of what my cells are doing won't be limited to surgeries involving people who have the same blood type.

This Audible book doesn't come with a downloadable reference guide, but there are pictures of the Lacks family and a lot of the scientists mentioned in the book available on Google Books.

[If this review helped, please let me know by pushing Helpful. Thanks!]

94 of 106 people found this review helpful