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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Nook Edition 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.


The edifice of science and simple humanity slam together into a text of terror and beauty in this exploration of the Hela cell line, a biological treasure that's caused some of modern medicine's greatest triumphs. The author explores in details the lives of those surrounding Henrietta Lacks as well as the scientists and doctors who did initial research with a truth and realism I've rarely seen in a factual narratives. On top of this, the author has a good discussion on tissue biology and patients' rights.

Narrative - out of necessity the book jumps forward and backward through time to introduce the main people in the story. A brief primer outlines the relatives of Henrietta Lacks and then the reader learns more and more about the progenitor of the Hela line. We then shift forward to the status of the Lacks family before the author appears and then back to the final days of Henrietta's life. The narrative is quite clear despite these shifts and the work in making the thread of events navigable is evident. Once the major pieces fall into place, the book follows the author and Debra Lacks to Debra's death and then discusses the current state of the Hela line. Characters - The disparity between the main characters would be hard to make starker. There's the poor, undereducated, black Lacks family, and the relatively affluent, doctorate-toting, white doctors of Johns Hopkins and other researchers. There is no commentary here as none is needed, they are simply the facts on the ground. The successes and failures of these two groups to communicate is compelling and sometimes heartbreaking. Prose - Dialog is reconstructed as best the author can manage and this proves vital in conveying who the characters are. Otherwise, the descriptions are done with the reporter's emphasis on important facts and quickly painting a scene. Science - I would have preferred if the book were a bit more willing to get technical and some of the really neat stuff is dismissed by the author as being complicated, which it is, but this is not an excuse to me. Where the science really shines is emphasizing how human an endeavor the process is, how driven by personality it can be, and the disconnect between research and the public. Each of these points is presented well and puts a more accurate face on this notion of some monolith of modern knowledge.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer, but her cells live on. For the first time, scientists were able to successfully culture living cells from a tissue sample; a tiny sliver of tissue from the cancer that killed Henrietta became the world-known HeLa cells, used in countless research projects. Yet the donor of this remarkable gift to science was never acknowledged, and, in fact, her family was unaware of her contribution for decades. This is the story not only of the HeLa cells, but of the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot joins the ranks of Laura Hillenbrand, Erik Larson and Richard Preston in crafting a work of nonfiction that reads like a thriller. I was totally immersed in the book. The scientific story was both fascinating and understandable; the personal story was inspiring and heartbreaking. The scene where Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was only a baby when her mother died, shows Skloot the Mother’s Day card she wrote to Henrietta brought me to tears. If I have any complaint at all it’s that the book ended – I wish I were still reading it.

This is one of the best books that I have read in a very long time. There is a skillful interweaving of the scientific advances from the immortal HeLa cells combined with the emotional, physical and spiritual impact on Henrietta Lacks family. Without the cells that were gathered without knowledge or consent of Mrs. Lacks, huge advances have been made is cures for everything from polio to depression. Biomedical and pharmaceutical companies have done so much research with the HeLa cells, resulting in important cures for devastating diseases and untold billions in profits. At the same time, her children have lived in poverty without the means to access to healthcare for themselves. They do not have medical insurance nor the financial ability to secure their own healthcare. The book articulates the disparity of race and class during the time that the advances were being made. The book humanizes Henrietta Lacks and the impact of her life and death on her children throughout their lives. While her cells have been famous since 1951, her life story had been somewhat anonymous. It is vitally important that her story has finally been told.

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