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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Paperback – 16 Apr 2010


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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan (16 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230750214
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230750210
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 3.3 x 23.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (367 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 912,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"'One of the most graceful and moving non-fiction books I've read in a very long time' Dwight Garner, New York Times 'Skloot's book is wonderful - deeply felt, gracefully written, sharply reported. It is a story about science but, much more, about life.' Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief"

Book Description

The internationally bestselling story of a young woman whose death in 1951 changed medical science for ever . . . --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

171 of 179 people found the following review helpful By Lady Fancifull TOP 500 REVIEWER on 21 April 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In 1951 human tissue culture was in its infancy, with researchers struggling to keep cells alive beyond a few cellular generations; normal cells are subject to apoptosis (programmed cellular lifespan/death)

Henrietta Lacks, a poor young black woman, was admitted to hospital in Baltimore in 1951 with an exceptionally invasive and aggressive cancer.

A standard biopsy was taken of her cancerous cells. She did not know that the biopsy would not be used purely for diagnostic purposes, but also tissues would be used for research. No consent was sought for this. In 1951 and indeed still today samples of tissue taken for diagnostic purposes can be used for other purposes - we do not own our tissues once they are no longer part of us.

Cancer cells are not subject to apoptosis. The particular aggressiveness of Henrietta Lack's cancer yielded astonishing results for tissue culture, and within a short space of time the `HeLa' cell line was being used for a wide number of medical research studies world wide, whether testing the actions of many pharmaceutical drugs or as part of the human genome project, and more.

`HeLa' has had profound, beneficial effects on probably most of us who benefit from modern medicine. HeLa has earned millions of dollars and much prestige for many predominantly white male scientists, as patents have been taken out on advances only possible through tissue culture using the HeLa line

However, Henrietta's family were unaware of the rich legacy she left the world - or the rich financial legacy reaped by institutions and individuals. In fact, they remained poor and unable to afford healthcare.
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114 of 121 people found the following review helpful By E. Yong on 13 Feb. 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is without question the best non-fiction book I've read in years. Skloot's debut is thrilling, original and refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. Equal parts popular science, historical biography and detective novel, it reads as evocatively as any work of fiction.

Skloot repeatedly appears as a character in her own book, narrating her journey from first hearing about HeLa cells in a classroom to her attempts to contact and support the Lacks family. Her narration reveals the trials that the Lacks family have undergone since Henrietta's cells went global, and the sheer amount of trust it took to uncover the details of this story.

But this is really a book about three heroines - the two whose names grace the cover and Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks. Skloot's personal mission to tell this story and Deborah's quest to know about her mother's life and legacy are central parts of Henrietta's story and they form some of the book's most compelling segments.

I write this review as someone who isn't typically a fan of historical non-fiction. Particularly in popular science, I often find descriptions of researchers to be distracting attempts at shoehorning in a human element that is out of keeping with the rest of the book. Not so here - this work has the most human of stories at its core, and never deviates from that important, and often heartbreaking, humanity. When science appears, it does so effortlessly, with explanations of cell anatomy or techniques like "fluorescence in situ hybridization" seamlessly worked into descriptions of the coloured wards of Johns Hopkins hospital to Lacks's hometown of Clover, Virginia.

Skloot's prose is witty, lyrical, economical and authoritative.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By leftfooter TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 15 Mar. 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I don't usually enjoy reading non-fiction but the topic sparked a curiosity in me. It took me a while to get to the point of not being able to put this book down, but it did happen! It tells the scientific tale of the HeLa cells but also the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, from whom these cells were taken whilst she was dying of cervical cancer.

This remarkable book manages to convey the effects of childhood bereavement, poverty and deprivation but also the tremendous human dignity that is shown by one of Henrietta's children, Deborah, in her fight to learn more about what had happened to her mother and her cells. It touches on the prejudice of segregation in America in the early fifties and the resultant poor access to medical care.

We learn about the great advances that the HeLa cells are responsible for, but conversely the havoc they created for biologists working in the early days of cell culture and genetic research. The ethical and legal debate surrounding ownership and patenting of genes for commercial purposes rages still, and I'm not sure we will ever get to the right answer to these questions.

As the author is the narrator of this book, and is the one constant throughout its many threads, I wanted to like her but I'm still left with an uneasy feeling about her role in the telling of this story. She makes acknowledgements and thanks to the many members of the Lacks family and was instrumental in founding the Henrietta Lacks Foundation but I'm uneasy that the book was dedicated to her own family and that neither of the Lacks heroines were included in the list.
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