January 13, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
2010 Random House Audio
Readers: Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin
Finished 11/26/12
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)


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.

After reading so many positive reviews for this book, I was anxious to finally listen to the audio when it popped up in my library queue. The narrative starts off with a bang and I learned a lot about the history of HeLa cells. Unfortunately, as the story progressed I found it difficult to pay attention and felt the author focused too much on Deborah's life. I doubt I would've have finished the book, had I read the print edition. Disappointing.


  1. I liked this book more than you did, but I did have problems with it. First of all, I thought the author all but harassed the family to get them to speak to her. I also thought the author injected herself in the story too much.

  2. Yikes! I did pick this one up for 50 cents at a book sale so if I'm disappointed I won't feel too bad!!

  3. Oh, I loved this one in audio -- so sad. Sorry you were ot thrilled with it.

  4. Oh I feel SO sad since I think I urged you to up it in your queue. I listened to this twice and loved it both times. The bits about Deborah's life and the relationship between Skloot and Deborah were what made this story so human.

    Hope the next audio is much better for you....

  5. Hmmm...have you done 11/22/63? FANTASTIC. (says with a bit of unease....)

  6. I found this book absolutely fascinating. But then, three of my immediate family members have been lost to cancer. The most recent, my younger brother last year at 42. I understand Deborah's quest to want to know more about her mother and her sister. I understand all the unanswered questions about a person you've lost. I wanted to know more about Henrietta just like Deborah.

    I actually chose this book for my book club which we will discuss at the end of the month. Thus far, the others members have enjoyed it as well.

    BTW - Trish, I LOVED 11/22/63!!

  7. I have zippo interest in this book. Even reading the word "cancer" gives me the shivers. I'm almost glad you disliked it. LOL

  8. Staci, I am definitely in the minority (see Diane, Trish, and Lori's comments), so please don't base your decision on my lackluster "review."

    Nancy, I understand 100%.

    Trish, I'm planning to listen to 11/22/63. Just waiting to get it from my library!

  9. I thought this one was very good. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy more.

    1. I know. I know. I wish I enjoyed it as much as other readers. I didn't dislike it. Just didn't think it was awesome.

  10. I liked this a lot, but I did feel like sometimes Skloot wasn't sure which story she wanted to focus on, the science story or the personal story. It did make for great book club discussion.

    1. I agree! It did feel that way, didn't it? I do think it would make for a good book club discussion, though. Lucky you to be in one. I've been in one, on and off over the years, but it's been awhile. Might be time to look into joining one again. Maybe. :)


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