The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot
Read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin

12.52 Hours 02/02/2010 unabridged
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    ISBN: 9780307712516

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Now a major motion picture from HBO® starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne. 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 sixty 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 bomb’s 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 Henrietta’s 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 twenty 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. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?             Intimate in feeling, 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.

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Summary

Summary

A New York Times bestseller

Winner of the 2011 Audie Award for Nonfiction

Winner of the 2011 Ambassador Book Award

Winner of the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize for Nonfiction

Winner of the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction

A 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Science & Technology

A 2010 O Magazine Best Book for Nonfiction

New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books for Nonfiction, 2010

A USA Today bestseller

A 2010 New York Magazine Top 10 Books

A 2010 People Magazine Best Book

An 2010 Entertainment Weekly Best Book

A 2010 Washington Post Top 10 Book

A Washington Post bestseller

A 2010 Salon Magazine Best Book of the Year

A 2010 Publishers Weekly Best Book for Nonfiction

An ALA Notable Book for Nonfiction in 2010

A 2010 Booklist Top of the List Pick

Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books, Best Nonfiction 2010

A 2011 RUSA Notable Book for Nonfiction

Now a major motion picture from HBO® starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

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 sixty 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 bomb’s 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 Henrietta’s 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 twenty 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.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? 
          
Intimate in feeling, 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.

Editorial Reviews

Editorial Reviews

An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells. Philadelphia Inquirer 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science. National Public Radio 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine. Vogue 
Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in U.S. medical research. TIME 
As much an act of justice as one of journalism. Seattle Times 
A stunning book . . . surely the definitive work on the subject. The Independent(U.K.) 
“I can’t imagine a better tale. A detective story that’s at once mythically large and painfully intimate. I highly recommend this book. Jad Abumrad, Radiolab 
[A] remarkable and moving book . . . a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells. The Times (U.K.)
Read this . . . By letting the Lackses be people, and by putting them in the center of the history, Skloot turns just another tale about the march of progress into a complicated portrait of the interaction between science and human lives. —BOINGBOING.NET 
Graceful . . . I can’t think of a better way to capture the corrosive effects of ethical transgressions in medical research. It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully rendered. The Lancet 
Moving . . . The Economist 
Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly . . . A riveting narrative that is wholly original. THEROOT.COM 
Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Skloot] is determined not to. This biography ensures that she will never again be reduced to cells in a petri dish: she will always be Henrietta as well as HeLa. The Telegraph (U.K.) 
“Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks. Newsweek
This remarkable story of how the cervical cells of the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, enabled subsequent discoveries from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization is extraordinary in itself; the added portrayal of Lacks's full life makes the story come alive with her humanity and the palpable relationship between race, science, and exploitation. Paula J. Giddings, author of Ida, A Sword Among Lions; Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor, Afro-American Studies, Smith College
Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go. Boston Globe
Brings the Lacks family alive . . . gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing. Baltimore Sun
A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells. Los Angeles Times 
Astonishing . . .No matter how much you may know about basic biology, you will be amazed by this book. The Journal of Clinical Investigation
More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write . . . Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating . . . a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives . . . packed with memorable characters. Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Ten Book of 2010 
In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life. Mother Jones 
Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch. The Globe and Mail (Canada) 
A rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender,medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer that can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling. Seed 
Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien. Chicago Tribune 
“An essential reminder that all human cells grown in labs across the world, HeLa or otherwise, came from individuals with fears, desires, and stories to tell. Chemical & Engineering News  
[A] remarkable book. London Review of Books 
An achievement . . . navigates both the technical and deeply personal sides of the HeLa story with clarity and care. The Portland Mercury 
Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner. British Medical Journal 
Thrilling and original nonfiction that refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. It is equal parts popular science, historical biography, and detective novel. Ed Yong, DISCOVER.COM 
We need more writers like Rebecca Skloot. E.O.Wilson
Thanks to Rebecca Skloot, we may now remember Henrietta—who she was, how she lived, how she died. The New Republic 
Best book I’ve read in years. Brian Sullivan, Fox Business Network
Defies easy categorization . . . as unpredictable as any pulp mystery and as strange as any science fiction. Willamette Week 
Encompasses nearly every hot-button issue currently surrounding the practice of medicine. Madison Capital Times 
Skloot explores human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine’s inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave. US News & World Report 
A masterful work of nonfiction . . . a real page turner. Hanna Rosin, Slate 
Skloot has written an important work of immersive nonfiction that brings not only the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa once more into line, but also catharsis to a family in sore need of it. The Times Literary Supplement 
Powerful story . . . I feel moved even to say on behalf of the thousands of anonymous black men and women who’ve been experimented on for medical purposes, thank you. Thank you for writing this important book. Kali-AhsetAmen, Radio Diaspora 
Remarkably balanced and nonjudgmental . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will leave readers reeling, plain and simple. It has a power and resonance rarely found in any genre, and is a subject that touches each of us, whether or not we are aware of our connection to Henrietta’s gift. The Oregonian 
This is the perfect book. It reads like a novel but has the intellectual substance of a science textbook or a historical biography. The Daily Nebraskan 
Good science writing isn’t easy, but Skloot makes it appear so. The Wichita Eagle 
A tremendous accomplishment —a tale of important science history that reads like a terrific novel. Kansas City Star 
Illuminates what happens when medical research is conducted within an unequal health-care system and delivers an American narrative fraught with intrigue, tragedy, triumph, pathos, and redemption. MS.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do. Dallas Morning News
No dead woman has done more for the living . . . a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book. Hilary Mantel, The Guardian (U.K.) 
A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine . . . The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds. Nature
I could not put the book down . . . The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly. Entertainment Weekly
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLEREntertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of the Year New Yorker Reviewers’ FavoriteAmerican Library Association Notable Book People Top Ten Book of the YearWashington Post Book World Top Ten Book of the Year Salon.com Best Book of the YearUSA Today Ten Books We Loved ReadingO, The Oprah Magazine Top Ten Book of the YearNational Public Radio Best of the BestsellersBoston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year  Financial Times Nonfiction FavoriteLos Angeles Times Critics’ PickBloomberg Top Nonfiction New York magazine Top Ten Book of the YearSlate.com Favorite Book of the YearTheRoot.com Top Ten Book of the YearDiscover magazine 2010 Must-ReadPublishers Weekly Best Book of the YearLibrary Journal Top Ten Book of the YearKirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the YearU.S. News & World Report Top Debate-Worthy BookBooklist Top of the List—Best Nonfiction BookNew York Times/Science Bestseller list 
“Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in US medical research.” Time
A jaw-dropping true story . . . raises urgent questions about race and research for ‘progress’ . . . an inspiring tale for all ages. Essence
“Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful. New York Times Book ReviewThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.
Like any good scientific research, this beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched book raises nearly as many questions as it answers . . . In a time when it’s fashionable to demonize scientists, Skloot generously does not pin any sins to the lapels of the researchers. She just lets them be human . . . [and] challenges much of what we believe of ethics, tissue ownership, and humanity. Science  
This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology. The New Yorker  
Indelible . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism. Laura Miller, Salon.com  
One of the great medical biographies of our time. The Financial Times  
Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easilyexplained away. SF Weekly 
“[A] multilayered narrative of race, class, and family.” O, The Oprah Magazine
“The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully and movingly.” Entertainment Weekly
“Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks.” Newsweek
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine.”  Vogue
“This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology.” New Yorker
“Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful.”  New York Times Book Review
“More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write.” New York Times
“A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells.” Los Angeles Times
“One of the great medical biographies of our time.” Financial Times (London)
“A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.”  Washington Post
“Riveting…a tour-de-force debut.”  Chicago Sun-Times
“Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go.” Boston Globe
“Beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched.” Science
“Extraordinary.” Telegraph (London)
“No dead woman has done more for the living…a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.” Guardian (London)
“A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine…The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds.” Nature
“Indelible…The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism.”  Salon.com
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.” Wired.com
“Moving.” Economist
“Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.” Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien.” Chicago Tribune
“[A] remarkable and moving book…a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells.” Times (London)
“A stunning book…surely the definitive work on the subject.” Independent (London)
“[A] remarkable book.” London Review of Books
“Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner.”  British Medical Journal
“An inspiring tale for all ages.”  Essence
“A remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction.” National Public Radio
“As much an act of justice as one of journalism.”  Seattle Times
“An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells.”  Philadelphia Inquirer
“Brings the Lacks family alive…[and] gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing.” Baltimore Sun
“Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easily explained away.” SF Weekly
“Interestingly, Caucasian Cassandra Campbell admirably portrays African American Lacks and her associates, while only the small part of Lacks’ daughter is assigned to fellow African-American Bahni Turpin. The fine narration underscores the pain and frustration her family feels after Lacks’ death, the purloining of her cells, and the world’s failure to recognize her role. However difficult it is to acknowledge unscrupulous medical experimentation, Campbell’s star quality rivets listeners to this tribute to one whose life continues to improve health care worldwide. A 2011 Audie Award Winner.” AudioFile

Reviews

Reviews

by Marianne 9/13/2017
Overall Performance
Narration
Story

An incredible and important story

The HeLa cells are among the most important in medical history. But who was Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind the immortal cells? Rebecca Skloot asked herself the same question. Her search, a decade-long journey through rural Virginian tobacco fields and high-tech research laboratories, is at the heart of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot uses Henrietta’s story to bring a myriad of interconnected themes in to focus—medical experimentation, bioethics, American history, race relations, science and citizenship, and public policy. Perhaps most poignant is Skloot’s relationship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s only living daughter. In the introduction, Skloot mentions how she purposefully and frequently quotes the Lacks unedited as a way of preserving the spirit of Henrietta’s family. Her rendering of Deborah—with all her nervous energy and fierce determination—feels fully alive. I have yet to read (or listen to) another memoir where a person feels so genuine and real. Intimate, fascinating, and thought-provoking, this is an incredible and important story.
by Lauren M 9/13/2017
Overall Performance
Narration
Story

Interesting

The premise of this was very interesting - the human side of scientific advancement - and I enjoyed the themes of ethics, race, class, and medical responsibility. The book wasn't a slam dunk to me though, although moments were definitely well done. It felt a bit repetitive and took quite a while for any real developments to unfold - seems like the narrator lost track of the story somewhere along the way. Problems with pacing aside, the premise may make it worth a listen for science and biography fans.

Author

Author Bio: Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many others. She is coeditor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She was named one of five surprising leaders of 2010 by the Washington Post. Her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen as a best book of 2010 by more than sixty media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, People, and the New York Times. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She has a BS in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She currently lives in Chicago.

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Details

Details

Available Formats : Digital Download
Category: Nonfiction
Runtime: 12.52
Audience: Adult
Language: English