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Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Online by Rebecca Skloot

Click Here to Download the Book 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.

Reviews

Rebecca Skloot is one of those rare writers that can take a complicated, messy, true story—for what true story isn’t complicated and messy?—and weave it into a compelling narrative. She’s done that and more with this study of one nearly anonymous woman. Henrietta Lacks, dirt-poor, granddaughter of slaves, member of a dysfunctional extended family, contracted a virulent form of cervical cancer and died in 1931, riddled with tumors. In a routine procedure, without Henrietta’s knowledge, a doctor harvested some of her cancerous cells


and preserved them. To his great surprise, the cells—forever after known as HeLa cells—not only thrived, but reproduced at an almost alarming rate outside of the human body. From that moment on, Henrietta Lacks was literally immortalized. The HeLa cells were shipped worldwide, aiding in research on everything from cancer to the development of the polio vaccine. Today, claims the author, every single inhabitant of planet Earth has been impacted by the research done using the HeLa cell line. If that were the end of the story, Skloot’s work would be impressive enough. Instead, she delves deeper, giving us a peek into Henrietta’s life that her own children never knew. That such a woman is so unsung as to have been buried in an unmarked grave bothered Rebecca Skloot. She sought out Henrietta’s widower, her children, her cousins, her siblings. Henrietta’s daughter Deborah knew nothing about her mother; it was a topic her father and other relatives wouldn’t discuss. Skloot befriended Deborah, and together they embarked on a journey of discovery, one that restored a sense of identity to Deborah and peace of mind to many of her family. A little bit history, a comprehensible story of science, sociology, and human interest—Skloot brings all this alive in a page-turner of a book that ensures Henrietta’s place in history. She gives us all much to think about.

This is one of the best written books I have ever read, riveting, compassionate, and informative. It tells of the brief life of Henrietta Lacks, descended from both slaves and owners, paired with her cousin mostly because of a lack of privacy and opportunity in her cotton-picking life. Not only impoverished, isolated, and having few educational opportunities, a hereditary deafness affects most of the Lacks family. Henrietta dies of cervical cancer of a very aggressive nature after being treated by Johns Hopkins. Unknown to her or her family her cancer cells have been harvested during treatment, a practice which is still normal in medicine today. These cells were cultured, and unlike most cells they became prolific and prospered, forming the cell stock used in many innoculations, such as polio. The HeLa cells, named after Henrietta Lacks still form the greatest number of experimental cells held by research institutions and are so hardy they have contaminated many of the other cell cultures, before such contamination was recognized as a threat. The Lacks family profited in no way from this sample and the subsequent proliferation of cells, and there were no consent laws at the time. Apparently no one has been willing to offer them any compensation, and at the time she wrote the book they were all in too poor health and too undereducated to pursue legal help, which might not be possible given the time that has elapse. But really, read the book-it exposes the cultural vulnerability of people who don't understand basic biology, get confused about cloning thinking that perhaps duplicates of their mother are living in England, etc. The whole knowledge is power statement is vindicated in these pages,especially given the profits reaped by the pharmaceutical industry for one poor woman's dying body. And Skloot is a writer to emulate, because the story doesn't compromise any one's dignity. It confronts the terrible loss this family experienced repeatedly knowing that their mother was gone but somehow still kept alive.

This is the fascinating story behind the most commonly used human cell tissue in the world. It is both the story of the science - how the cells were obtained and made to grow, and how they have been used to test cures for diseases like polio - as well as the human story of the woman from whom they were taken, and the family she left behind after her early death from the cancer that made her cells so amenable to laboratory use. It is both a story of hope and triumph, on the science side, and tragedy and heartbreak and frustration on the human side. It is a story about scientific ethics, and how we determine how to let research proceed while still respecting people's rights. It is a story about race and class struggle, and reconciliation. In the end, it is a story that needed to be told, and Skloot does a wonderful job of telling it, after spending years meticulously researching and reaching out to a family whose distrust of middle class white people was as justified as it was difficult to overcome.


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