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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • "The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly."—Entertainment Weekly
    NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE FROM HBO® STARRING OPRAH WINFREY AND ROSE BYRNE • ONE OF THE "MOST INFLUENTIAL" (CNN), "DEFINING" (LITHUB), AND "BEST" (THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER) BOOKS OF THE DECADE • ONE OF ESSENCE'S 50 MOST IMPACTFUL BLACK BOOKS OF THE PAST 50 YEARS • WINNER OF THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE HEARTLAND PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review Entertainment Weekly O: The Oprah Magazine • NPR • Financial Times New York Independent (U.K.) • Times (U.K.) • Publishers Weekly Library Journal Kirkus Reviews Booklist Globe and Mail
    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, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. 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.
    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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? 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.
  • #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • "The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly."—Entertainment Weekly
    NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE FROM HBO® STARRING OPRAH WINFREY AND ROSE BYRNE • ONE OF THE "MOST INFLUENTIAL" (CNN), "DEFINING" (LITHUB), AND "BEST" (THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER) BOOKS OF THE DECADE • ONE OF ESSENCE'S 50 MOST IMPACTFUL BLACK BOOKS OF THE PAST 50 YEARS • WINNER OF THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE HEARTLAND PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review Entertainment Weekly O: The Oprah Magazine • NPR • Financial Times New York Independent (U.K.) • Times (U.K.) • Publishers Weekly Library Journal Kirkus Reviews Booklist Globe and Mail
    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, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. 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.
    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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? 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.
  • Available formats-
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    • Available:
      1
    • Library copies:
      1
    Levels-
    • ATOS:
      8.0
    • Lexile:
      1140
    • Interest Level:
      UG
    • Text Difficulty:
      6 - 9

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    Awards-
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    • From the book

      PROLOGUEThe Woman in the Photograph

      There's a photo on my wall of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It's the late 1940s and she hasn't yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her--a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is "Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson."

      No one knows who took that picture, but it's appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She's usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She's simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world's first immortal human cells--her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.

      Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

      I've spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she'd think about cells from her cervix living on forever--bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I've tried to imagine how she'd feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I'm pretty sure that she--like most of us--would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.

      There's no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta's cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons--an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.

      I first learned about HeLa cells and the woman behind them in 1988, thirty-seven years after her death, when I was sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. He pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didn't understand, like "MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations."

      I was a kid who'd failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. I'd transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Defler's class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost.

      "Do we have to memorize everything on those diagrams?" one student yelled.

      Yes, Defler said, we had to memorize the diagrams, and yes, they'd be on the test, but that didn't matter right then. What he wanted us to understand was that cells are amazing things: There are about one...

    About the Author-
    • 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.

    Reviews-
    • Publisher's Weekly

      Starred review from October 5, 2009
      Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about “faith, science, journalism, and grace.” It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah’s mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta’s death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot’s portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.
      Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society’s most vulnerable people.

    • TED CONOVER, author of Newjack and The Routes of Man "No one can say exactly where Henrietta Lacks is buried: during the many years Rebecca Skloot spent working on this book, even Lacks's hometown of Clover, Virginia, disappeared. But that did not stop Skloot in her quest to exhume, and resurrect, the story of her heroine and her family. What this important, invigorating book lays bare is how easily science can do wrong, especially to the poor. The issues evoked here are giant: who owns our bodies, the use and misuse of medical authority, the unhealed wounds of slavery ... and Skloot, with clarity and compassion, helps us take the long view. This is exactly the sort of story that books were made to tell--thorough, detailed, quietly passionate, and full of revelation."
    • ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC, author of Random Family "It's extremely rare when a reporter's passion finds its match in a story. Rarer still when the people in that story courageously join that reporter in the search for what we most need to know about ourselves. When this occurs with a moral journalist who is also a true writer, a human being with a heart capable of holding all of life's damage and joy, the stars have aligned. This is an extraordinary gift of a book, beautiful and devastating--a work of outstanding literary reportage. Read it! It's the best you will find in many many years."
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