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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Paperback]

Rebecca Skloot
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (255 customer reviews)
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Book Description

23 Dec 2010

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta's family did not learn of her 'immortality' until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . . Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

'A fascinating, harrowing, necessary book' Hilary Mantel, Guardian

‘A heartbreaking account of racism and injustice’ Metro

'A fine book... a gripping read...The book has deservedly been a huge bestseller in the US. It should be here, too' Sunday Times

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Product details

  • Paperback: 431 pages
  • Publisher: Pan (23 Dec 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330533444
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330533447
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (255 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'It's a harrowing story and Rebecca Skloot tells it well.' --Sunday Telegraph Paperback Pick

'An extraordinary mix of memoir and science reveals the story of how one woman's cells have saved countless lives.'
--Daily Telegraph

'extraordinary . . . This haunting account of [Henrietta Lacks'] and her family's treatment unearths appalling racism and injustice beneath the beauty and drama of scientific discovery.' --Guardian

`Compelling story of the unsung woman whose cells have been used in dozens of medical breakthroughs.'
--Sunday Times

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

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
142 of 148 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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101 of 107 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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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 10 Oct 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book is something of a one-off not only because of its unique subject matter but also the way in which the author treats it. Cells from an individual suffering from cancer have, because of their capacity to propagate, become the default cellular material for generations of researchers. In itself this would make for an interesting factual account but Rebecca tries (and to an extent succeeds) panning back from the core scientific facts to show how there are many different and not necessarily interconnecting perspectives on a story. How `Blacks' were treated by the establishment in 50s America. The story of the individual and her family, who were as representative of the millions of the poor as her cancer cells were unique. A glimpse of medical science and quality of life at the time. The arrogance of the establishment (the cells were taken without her consent). And so on. Overall a kaleidoscopic picture, which reflects Rebecca's background as a journalist and is effective in its approach.

Rebecca did not `uncover' the story; there was an award-winning BBC documentary a dozen years ago, which triggered many newspaper features and there were also plans for the Medical establishment to honour Henrietta in 2001 (thrown awry by 9/11). I am left unclear as to where the author figures relative to these other efforts to publicise the story and it is almost as if she elbows her way to the front. It is apparent that Rebecca was involved with Henrietta and her family over quite a period of time and has taken them forward as something of a personal crusade. This shows and it is slightly disappointing that, having successfully shown the multi faceted nature of the subject, she then forces the perspective with the content weighted towards the family.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars deep thinking
This book certainly gets you thinking. There are so many ethical issues waved into Henrietta's story. Who is to say what was right and what was morally wrong in 1950s America? Read more
Published 18 days ago by mrp0709
4.0 out of 5 stars Enthralling and unusual biography.
A shocking book in many ways, it reminds the reader of just how far we've come in human rights in the last sixty years. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Mr. P. J. Laidlaw
5.0 out of 5 stars incredible read
One of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Could not put it down. Would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone.
Published 1 month ago by Susan Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
Very interesting story. I had a friend who recommended this and I'm glad I got it - amazing what this woman (well her cells) did for science.
Published 1 month ago by yw
3.0 out of 5 stars Did my ignorance stop me understanding?
Does the reader's poor scientific knowledge get in the way. For me it did, despite being told in the reviews that the c
Published 1 month ago by Anna Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars a good book
its a very good look at how things were in the usa for all in that country black & shows how things have moved on for the good of all.but its a very human story. Read more
Published 1 month ago by oliver bennett
5.0 out of 5 stars Scandal of human research
This is an amazing book. Like probably 99% of the population I had never heard of Henrietta Lacks a poor young black woman living in 1950's America yet her impact on medical... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Ronald Lask
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent book
for all interested in the history of medicine and science and injustice in the USA with issues relative to all in the world.
Published 2 months ago by john kirwan
5.0 out of 5 stars scientists and doctors should read this book
Research ethics classes should mandatory in medical-scientific related degrees. This book tells the history no one thinks about when working in the lab.
Published 2 months ago by CBM
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, eye opening book
Every so often you find a book that really makes you think about life, and this was it for me.

Skloot has well captured the struggles of Ms. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Rebekah Barnett
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