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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Audiobook] [Audio CD]

Rebecca Skloot , Cassandra Campbell , Bahni Turpin
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (265 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Feb 2010
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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Product details

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group; 1 Una edition (2 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307712508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307712509
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 15.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (265 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 828,681 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"'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" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

REBECCA SKLOOT is an award-winning science writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine, among others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR's RadioLab and PBS's Nova ScienceNOW, and blogs about science, life, and writing at Culture Dish, hosted by Seed magazine. She also teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis. Visit her website at --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
145 of 151 people found the following review helpful
By Lady Fancifull TOP 500 REVIEWER
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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102 of 108 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deserves immortal status 13 Feb 2010
By E. Yong
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gripping but has flaws 29 Nov 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
This book is well written and is mostly well told, the story of Henrietta, what happened to her cells once they were removed and the impact on her family is interesting and makes for a gripping read. The science is not overdone and is dumbed down enough to appeal to a large audience. That's not a criticism, the author decided to focus on the human element side so has not gone into too much technical detail on the science thus giving the book more appeal.

The book contains details of Henrietta's life and death and the medical advances made possible as a result of Henrietta's cells and gives information on the ethics surrounding the issues raised. Unfortunately though the author only half succeeds on human story side as the book started to go downhill during the second part of the book.

Skloot relied very heavily on the co-corporation of the Lacks family to gain the information that she needed for her book. The Lacks family could have at any point cut Skloot off and as a result a troubled relationship between Skloot and Henrietta's daughter Deborah springs up which the Skloot chooses to focus on during much of the second part of the book which gets in the way of the more interesting story. I would have liked to have learnt more about why Henretta's cells were so important rather than endless details about how Deborah refuses to take her calls.

At 300 pages this book is too long but this is a book still well worth reading as it is interesting and very accessible but there are flaws.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Brilliant. Really enjoyed it.
Published 1 day ago by Andrew
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary story that recognises the personal tragedies behind a...
This is an excellent book, the author’s first, that should give librarians a headache over where to file it – biography, memoir, detection, social history, race, science,... Read more
Published 4 days ago by Dr R
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read book
Amazing how this was kept from us for so many years, matches the discovery of Penicillin. Just blows your mind.
Published 15 days ago by Mr. David Fisher
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been better
I was so looking forward to reading this but it wasn't what I was expecting. I thought I would learn more about Henrietta & her family but it didn't live up to my expectations. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Cheekyboots
5.0 out of 5 stars Very thought provoking.
This book is great. Politics and social history and medical science all in one. But most of all an account of an amazing woman and her family and a vivid insight into their... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Alison
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book. Well written, with a great narrative style.
A highly readable and engrossing book. Rebecca Skloot writes accurately about the science, but keeps it understandable for the lay person. Read more
Published 1 month ago by GJ
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
This book is required reading. It blends science with human consequence and gives startling insight on origins of one field of research. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Hebeleigh
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but meandering
The role of the HeLa cells in scientific research was fascinating to read, whilst Henrietta's story was a heart-rending tale of poverty, incest from childhood and repeatedly being... Read more
Published 1 month ago by rach
3.0 out of 5 stars Immortal Life of Henrietta......
It is a bit yellowed but does not seem to be marked at all. It will do for my purpose
Published 2 months ago by grannyannie
5.0 out of 5 stars The book every Woman and Cytologist should read
This book was recommended to me by a nurse when on holiday
We owe Henrietta Lack do much.. Never read this book or heard it recommended on my science courses
Read and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Seagervirg
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