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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of the woman whose cells have contributed to numerous medical breakthroughs without the knowledge or consent of her family. This book raises the question of who owns your tissues once they are removed from your body. This book is also about the family Henrietta left behind, their struggle with paying for their own medical care and how they have dealt with knowing that part of their mother continues to thrive despite her death.

From the book flap:

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. Continue reading...

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.

Book Club Party Ideas for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is a image of HeLa cells and I can understand Deborah’s reaction when she first saw her mother’s cells. They are beautiful.


Decorations can include Medical supply containers and a tablecloth of hospital gowns.

triscuit gauze, cookie bandages, wedding cookie cotton balls

Book Club Menu

Check out my blog post about food ideas for a medically themed book club party. There are recipes for Cotton Balls, Qtips and Tongue Depressors. A ladyfinger topped with white chocolate can represent a bandaid and Triscuits for gauze.

wedding cookie cotton balls, cheese stick tongue depressors, cookie bandaids

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.02 (325,115 ratings)
Amazon: 4.5 stars (4,674 reviews)
My rating: 4 stars. This is a great pick for a book club as there are many issues to discuss regarding medical ethics and access to medical care.

Book Reviews

  • A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.” —Washington Post
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.” —National Public Radio
  • “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating book for people interested in scientific or medical research, but its real achievement lies in it’s humane – and deeply human – look at both Mrs. Lacks and her descendants. – Literary Corner Cafe Blog

Purchase The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at your favorite bookseller

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About the Author

Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Prevention, Glamour, and others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radio Lab and PBS’s NOVA scienceNow, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including The Best Food Writing and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is a former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, and has taught nonfiction in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh, and science journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She blogs about science, life, and writing at Culture Dish, hosted by Seed magazine. This is her first book.

Rebecca Skloot founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent. A portion of her the book proceeds goes to the foundation.

Congratulations to Rebecca Skloot! The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was selected for more than sixty best of the year lists Including:
New York Times Notable Book
Entertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of the Year
New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite
American Library Association Notable Book
People Top Ten Book of the Year
Washington Post Book World Top Ten Book of the Year Best Book of the Year
USA Today Ten Books We Loved Reading
O, The Oprah Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year
National Public Radio Best of the Bestsellers
Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
Financial Times Nonfiction Favorite
Los Angeles Times Critics’ Pick
Bloomberg Top Nonfiction
New York magazine Top Ten Book of the Year Favorite Book of the Year Top Ten Book of the Year
Discover magazine 2010 Must-Read
Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year
Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
U.S. News & World Report Top Debate-Worthy Book
Booklist Top of the List—Best Nonfiction Book

One more person I want to recognize is Dr. George N. Papanicolaou, who revolutionized the treatment of cervical cancer with his development of the Pap smear.


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