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Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks
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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.

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
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


“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.” —Wired.com

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

“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

 “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

“Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Sklo


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