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4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 4.00 (138,927 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Rebecca Skloot Narrator: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a riveting account of a life that combines elements of racial issues, medicine and medical ethics as well as questions about the meaning of immortality and a family struggling to understand their mother's legacy.

Unbeknownst to her, Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) changed the world through her contributions to biomedical research. Lacks was a poor African-American woman who was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital beginning in 1951 for cervical cancer. She died that same year, but prior to her death her doctor removed two samples of Henrietta's cervix, a healthy part and a cancerous part, without her permission or even her knowledge.

Her doctor gave the cells to Dr. George Otto Gey, a biomedical researcher. These cells eventually became the HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) Immortal cell line. Prior to the use of Lacks' cells, cell lines used for research would die out within a few days and had to continuously be replaced. Henrietta Lacks' cells were the first that scientists could keep alive and grow. The HeLa cells are the most commonly used cells in research, and are still being used today.

According to author Rebecca Skloot, Henrietta Lacks' cells were vital to the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. Her cells have been bought and sold millions of times the world over, and yet her children remain in poverty and cannot afford health insurance.

Skloot learned about the HeLa cells in a high school science class and her interest was piqued. After completing college, she spent the next decade researching Henrietta Lacks and in the process became close to the surviving members of the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta's eldest daughter, Deborah. The Lacks family remained impoverished and uneducated, and had trouble understanding the meaning of their mother's immortality, while also feeling that the doctors had stolen from them, in more ways than one.

Rebecca Skloot 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, and has been published in several scientific journals and mainstream magazines. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is her first book, has won several awards and has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for two years. In 2011, the book won the Audie Award for Best Non-Fiction Audiobook.

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 one 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 John 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.

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Quotes & Awards

  • #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
    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
    Salon.com 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
    Slate.com Favorite Book of the Year
    TheRoot.com 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
    New York Times/Science Bestseller list 

  • I could not put the book down . . . The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly. Entertainment Weekly
  • “Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful. New York Times Book Review

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.
  • A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine . . . The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds. Nature
  • A jaw-dropping true story . . . raises urgent questions about race and research for ‘progress’ . . . an inspiring tale for all ages. Essence
  • This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology. The New Yorker
      
  • Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easily
    explained away.
    SF Weekly
     
  • One of the great medical biographies of our time. The Financial Times
      
  • Like any good scientific research, this beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched book raises nearly as many questions as it answers . . . In a time when it’s fashionable to demonize scientists, Skloot generously does not pin any sins to the lapels of the researchers. She just lets them be human . . . [and] challenges much of what we believe of ethics, tissue ownership, and humanity. Science
      
  • Indelible . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism. Laura Miller, Salon.com
      
  • No dead woman has done more for the living . . . a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book. Hilary Mantel, The Guardian (U.K.)
     
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do. Dallas Morning News
  • Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go. Boston Globe
  • Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Skloot] is determined not to. This biography ensures that she will never again be reduced to cells in a petri dish: she will always be Henrietta as well as HeLa. The Telegraph (U.K.)
     
  • Brings the Lacks family alive . . . gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing. Baltimore Sun
  • A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells. Los Angeles Times
     
  • In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life. Mother Jones
     
  • More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write . . . Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating . . . a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives . . . packed with memorable characters. Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Ten Book of 2010
     
  • Astonishing . . .No matter how much you may know about basic biology, you will be amazed by this book. The Journal of Clinical Investigation
  • Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly . . . A riveting narrative that is wholly original. THEROOT.COM
     
  • Moving . . . The Economist
     
  • Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in U.S. medical research. TIME
     
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine. Vogue
     
  • 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
     
  • An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells. Philadelphia Inquirer
     
  • As much an act of justice as one of journalism. Seattle Times
     
  • A stunning book . . . surely the definitive work on the subject. The Independent(U.K.)
     
  • Graceful . . . I can’t think of a better way to capture the corrosive effects of ethical transgressions in medical research. It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully rendered. The Lancet
     
  • Read this . . . By letting the Lackses be people, and by putting them in the center of the history, Skloot turns just another tale about the march of progress into a complicated portrait of the interaction between science and human lives. —BOINGBOING.NET
     
  • [A] remarkable and moving book . . . a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells. The Times (U.K.)
  • “I can’t imagine a better tale. A detective story that’s at once mythically large and painfully intimate. I highly recommend this book. Jad Abumrad, Radiolab
     
  • Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch. The Globe and Mail (Canada)
     
  • A rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender,medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer that can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling. Seed
     
  • Powerful story . . . I feel moved even to say on behalf of the thousands of anonymous black men and women who’ve been experimented on for medical purposes, thank you. Thank you for writing this important book. Kali-AhsetAmen, Radio Diaspora
     
  • Skloot has written an important work of immersive nonfiction that brings not only the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa once more into line, but also catharsis to a family in sore need of it. The Times Literary Supplement
     
  • A masterful work of nonfiction . . . a real page turner. Hanna Rosin, Slate
     
  • Skloot explores human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine’s inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave. US News & World Report
     
  • Remarkably balanced and nonjudgmental . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will leave readers reeling, plain and simple. It has a power and resonance rarely found in any genre, and is a subject that touches each of us, whether or not we are aware of our connection to Henrietta’s gift. The Oregonian
     
  • This is the perfect book. It reads like a novel but has the intellectual substance of a science textbook or a historical biography. The Daily Nebraskan
     
  • Illuminates what happens when medical research is conducted within an unequal health-care system and delivers an American narrative fraught with intrigue, tragedy, triumph, pathos, and redemption. MS.
  • A tremendous accomplishment —a tale of important science history that reads like a terrific novel. Kansas City Star
     
  • Good science writing isn’t easy, but Skloot makes it appear so. The Wichita Eagle
     
  • Encompasses nearly every hot-button issue currently surrounding the practice of medicine. Madison Capital Times
     
  • Defies easy categorization . . . as unpredictable as any pulp mystery and as strange as any science fiction. Willamette Week
     
  • An achievement . . . navigates both the technical and deeply personal sides of the HeLa story with clarity and care. The Portland Mercury
     
  • [A] remarkable book. London Review of Books 
  • “An essential reminder that all human cells grown in labs across the world, HeLa or otherwise, came from individuals with fears, desires, and stories to tell. Chemical & Engineering News 
     
  • Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien. Chicago Tribune
     
  • Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner. British Medical Journal
     
  • Thrilling and original nonfiction that refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. It is equal parts popular science, historical biography, and detective novel. Ed Yong, DISCOVER.COM
     
  • Best book I’ve read in years. Brian Sullivan, Fox Business Network
  • Thanks to Rebecca Skloot, we may now remember Henrietta—who she was, how she lived, how she died. The New Republic
     
  • We need more writers like Rebecca Skloot. E.O.Wilson

  • This remarkable story of how the cervical cells of the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, enabled subsequent discoveries from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization is extraordinary in itself; the added portrayal of Lacks's full life makes the story come alive with her humanity and the palpable relationship between race, science, and exploitation. Paula J. Giddings, author of Ida, A Sword Among Lions; Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor, Afro-American Studies, Smith College
  • “Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks. Newsweek
  • “Journalist Rebecca Skloot’s history of the miraculous cells reveals deep injustices in US medical research.”

    Time

  • “[A] multilayered narrative of race, class, and family.”

    O, The Oprah Magazine

  • “The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully and movingly.”

    Entertainment Weekly

  • “Skloot’s engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks.”

    Newsweek

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at the woman whose cultured cells—the first to grow and survive indefinitely, harvested without compensation or consent—have become essential to modern medicine.” 

    Vogue

  • “This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else’s mythology.”

    New Yorker

  • “Science writing is often just about ‘the facts.’ Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful.” 

    New York Times Book Review

  • “More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write.”

    New York Times

  • “A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author’s passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells.”

    Los Angeles Times

  • “One of the great medical biographies of our time.”

    Financial Times (London)

  • “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

  • “Riveting…a tour-de-force debut.” 

    Chicago Sun-Times

  • “Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go.”

    Boston Globe

  • “Beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched.”

    Science

  • “Extraordinary.”

    Telegraph (London)

  • “No dead woman has done more for the living…a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book.”

    Guardian (London)

  • “A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine…The emotional impact of Skloot’s tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds.”

    Nature

  • “Indelible…The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism.” 

    Salon.com

  • “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing...one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.”

    Wired.com

  • “Moving.”

    Economist

  • “Skloot is a terrific popularizer of medical science, guiding readers through this dense material with a light and entertaining touch.”

    Globe and Mail (Toronto)

  • “Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien.”

    Chicago Tribune

  • “[A] remarkable and moving book…a vivid portrait of Lacks that should be as abiding as her cells.”

    Times (London)

  • “A stunning book…surely the definitive work on the subject.”

    Independent (London)

  • “[A] remarkable book.”

    London Review of Books

  • “Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner.” 

    British Medical Journal

  • “An inspiring tale for all ages.” 

    Essence

  • “A remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction.”

    National Public Radio

  • “As much an act of justice as one of journalism.” 

    Seattle Times

  • “An indelible, marvelous story as powerful as those cells.” 

    Philadelphia Inquirer

  • “Brings the Lacks family alive…[and] gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality—this one through the discipline of good writing.”

    Baltimore Sun

  • “Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easily explained away.”

    SF Weekly

  • “Interestingly, Caucasian Cassandra Campbell admirably portrays African American Lacks and her associates, while only the small part of Lacks’ daughter is assigned to fellow African-American Bahni Turpin. The fine narration underscores the pain and frustration her family feels after Lacks’ death, the purloining of her cells, and the world’s failure to recognize her role. However difficult it is to acknowledge unscrupulous medical experimentation, Campbell’s star quality rivets listeners to this tribute to one whose life continues to improve health care worldwide. A 2011 Audie Award Winner.”

    AudioFile

  • A New York Times Bestseller
  • A USA Today Bestseller
  • Winner of the 2011 Audie Award for Nonfiction
  • An ALA Notable Book for Nonfiction in 2010
  • Winner of the 2011 Ambassador Book Award
  • An 2010 Entertainment Weekly Best Book
  • A 2010 People Magazine Best Book
  • A 2010 Washington Post Top 10 Book
  • A 2010 Salon Magazine Best Book of the Year
  • A 2010 New York Magazine Top 10 Books
  • Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books, Best Nonfiction 2010
  • A 2010 Publishers Weekly Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2010 Booklist Top of the List Pick
  • A Washington Post Bestseller
  • A 2011 RUSA Notable Book for Nonfiction
  • New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books for Nonfiction, 2010
  • A 2010 O Magazine Best Book for Nonfiction
  • Winner of the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize for Nonfiction
  • Winner of the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction
  • A 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Science & Technology

Listener Opinions

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 by Jloanmom | 2/14/2014

    " I think this could have been better with more character development and less medical history. The significance and use of Henrietta's cells is addressed over and over, while the family story is presented in bits and pieces. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by Janey Allen | 2/4/2014

    " I loved this book. I thought it was well written and reads like fiction, but is non-fiction. It raised so many issues and I found it intriguing. This is one I would love to add to my personal library. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Polly | 2/4/2014

    " I found the information in this book fascinating. I had heard of HeLa cells but had absolutely no idea about the back story. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by Everet Seeley | 2/3/2014

    " WOW! This book is a must read about a lady (Heneretta Lacks) whose cells were taken from her without her knowledge in 1951 and used for medical research resulting in the saving of thousands of lives over the years. Even though billions of her cells have been bought and sold neither her nor her family were ever compensated and in fact her family still cannot afford health insurance. "

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