The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Front Cover
Broadway Paperbacks, 2011 - Biography & Autobiography - 381 pages
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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User Review  - vguy - LibraryThing

Superb. Has it all: human interest, sympathy for hardship, page-turning story, clear and fascinating scientific explanation. Even elements of mystery: why this one woman's cells? why this extreme ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - melrailey - LibraryThing

A great biography. I don't even think that it was so much Henrietta Lacks' story that made this such a great book. I was intrigued by how much all of science could be changed by one person's cells. On ... Read full review

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Contents

The Woman in the Photograph
1
Deborahs Voice
9
Part One LIFE
14
The Exam 1951
15
Clover 19201942
18
Diagnosis and Treatment 1951
27
The Birth of HeLa 1951
34
Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside 1951
42
Its Alive 19731974 79
181
Least They Can Do 1975 9
191
Who Told You You Could Sell My Spleen? 19761988
199
Breach of Privacy 19801985
207
The Secret of Immortality 19841995
212
After London 19961999
218
A Village of Henriettas 2000
232
Zakariyya 20co
241

Ladys on the Phone 1999
49
The Death and Life of Cell Culture 1951
56
A Miserable Specimen 1951
63
9 Turner Station 1999
67
The Other Side of the Tracks 1999
77
The Devil of Pain Itself 1951
83
Part Two DEATH 12 The Storm 1951
89
The HeLa Factory 19511953
93
Helen Lane 19531954
105
Too Young to Remember 19511965 0
110
Spending Eternity in the Same Place 1999
118
Illegal Immoral and Deplorable 19541966 27
127
Strangest Hybrid 19601966
137
The Most Critical Time on This Earth Is Now 19661973 44
145
The HeLa Bomb 1966
152
Night Doctors 20co
158
The Fame She So Richly Deserves 19701973 70
170
Part Three
180
Hela Goddess of Death 20002001
250
All Thats My Mother 2001
261
The Hospital for the Negro Insane 2001
268
The Medical Records 2001
279
Soul Cleansing 2001
286
Heavenly Bodies 2001
294
Nothing to Be Scared About 2001
297
The Long Road to Clover 2009
305
Where They Are Now
311
About the Henrietta Lacks Foundation
314
Afterword
324
Cast of Characters
329
Timeline
333
Acknowledgments
337
Notes
346
Index
367
Reading Group Guide
379
Copyright

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About the author (2011)

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. Skloot's 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. It is being translated into more than twenty-five languages, adapted into a young reader edition, and being made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She has a B.S. 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 lives in Chicago. For more information, visit her website at RebeccaSkloot.com, where you’ll find links to follow her on Twitter and Facebook. 

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