The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Download 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.
It's amazing that this book was ever written. It's a testament to the author's perseverance that it did. She navigates a minefield of bureaucracy and poorly kept decades-old medical records, all while overcoming the shattered trust Henrietta's family has towards anyone interested in her story. And that's not even what this book is about.
It's really about the particularly nasty cancer that claims the life of Henrietta Lacks and how her endlesslydividing cells ended up being just what the budding field of genetics needed to become central to modern medicine. Meanwhile, the lives of Henrietta and her descendants, a poor Black family scattered around Baltimore and (very) rural Virginia, continue on, oblivious to how their mother's cells had become so important. And that's not even what this book is about either. Ultimately it's about ethics and the American class structure. Much of Henrietta's family is so poor and uneducated they never understood the circumstances surrounding her death or how it ultimately led to a medical revolution. Most of them don't even have a high school education to understand the basic science or health insurance to benefit from it.
I honestly cannot stop thinking about this book or the Lacks family. I spent all weekend with it because I couldn't put the book down. I am fascinated that not much has changed since 1951 with the legality of abandoned tissue. Sure, now there is informed consent, but what exactly does that mean? I think while the science of the book is great, the heart of the book is the Lacks family. Henrietta's children are more interesting to me than the science. I became interested in the same questions they were asking. What Henrietta's favorite color? How much pain did she suffer? Why did no one tell them what was happening with her tissue? If she saved so many lives through her donation, why couldn't her children get access to health care? Ms. Skloot has written a powerful book and I cannot stop thinking about Henrietta and the children and grandchildren that she left behind. Everyone should read this book.
I had seen this book highly recommended and finally decided I needed to see what all the fuss was about - and I am so glad I did. This was such an amazing story, or rather two stories - one of the infamous HeLa cells that have contributed so much to medicine and science... and the story of Henrietta Lacks and her ancestors, who were never told that part of her lived on. Sometimes the science of the HeLa cells got a bit overwhelming but the author did her best to make sure that I, lacking a medical degree, was able to understand most of what she was talking about. And she did a great job of making me feel like I was really there with Henrietta and the rest of her family. Would definitely recommend this!
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