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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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4.02 of 5 stars 4.02  ·  rating details  ·  268,556 ratings  ·  23,350 reviews
From the back cover:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells--taken without her knowledge in 1951--became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yes she remains vi
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Paperback, 382 pages
Published March 8th 2011 by Random House Crown Publishing Broadway Paperbacks (first published January 1st 2010)
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Troy Not just scraping, but diseased. the family can't even get decent medical care!
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Not just scraping, but diseased. the family can't even get decent medical care!
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Community Reviews

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Kemper
The doorbell rang the other day and when I answered it, there was a very slick guy in a nice suit standing there and a limousine parked at the curb. He started shaking my hand and wormed his way into the house.

“Mr. Kemper, I’m John Doe with Dee-Bag Industries Incorporated. I need you to sign some paperwork and take a ride with me. Don’t worry, I’ll have you home in a day or two,” he said. Then he pulled a document out of his briefcase, set it on the coffee table and pushed a pen in my hand.

“Wai
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Jason
You know what I think is funny? This book is called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. That makes it sound pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Henrietta Lacks’s name is in the title. Henrietta Lacks’s picture is on the front cover. And yet this book has seemingly very little to do with Henrietta Lacks. In fact, I’d argue that this book is rather about Rebecca Skloot. Yup, it’s the story of Rebecca Skloot doing a story about Henrietta Lacks, only forgetting to actually give us the story. I’ve ...more
Petra X
This is an all-gold five star read.

Its actually two stories, the story of the HeLa cells and the story of the Lacks family told by a journalist who writes the first story objectively and the second, in which she is involved, subjectively. The contrast between the poor Lacks family who cannot afford their medical bills and the research establishment who have made millions, maybe billions from these cells is ironic and tragic. It has been established by other law cases that if the family had gone
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Laura
Fascinating and Thought-Provoking.

Strengths:
*Fantastically interesting subject!
One woman's cancerous cells are multiplied and distributed around the globe enabling a new era of cellular research and fueling incredible advances in scientific methodology, technology, and medical treatments. This strain of cells, named HeLa (after Henrietta Lacks their originator), has been amazingly prolific and has become integrated into advancements of science around the world (space travel, genome research, p
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Liz Nutting
When I was a graduate student in the field of Ethics, one of my favorite pedagogical strategies, as both a teacher and a student, was the case study. A good case study can make an abstract ethical issue more concrete. A really good case study can turn a deeply contentious issue into an opportunity for thoughtfulness and compassion; right and wrong (to the extent that those concepts even belong in the study of ethics) are nuanced by descriptions of circumstances or values or human need that can m ...more
Kathleen
My thoughts on this book are kind of all over the place. I feel for the Lacks family, I really do. It's hard to read about the poverty and lack of education and the cavalier approach towards informed consent in the early days of Johns Hopkins Research Hospital. The fact that the HeLa cell line is the foundation of so much valuable research is rightfully a source of pride for the family of Henrietta Lacks. I don't think they will ever see monetary compensation for their mother's cancer cell line, ...more
Jacob
May 2012

Henrietta Lacks vs. Jesus: Final Exam
(With apologies to believers)

Directions
Please read the following excerpts, and answer the questions below:

From the Last Supper:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many fo
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Dan Schwent
When a poor woman dies of cervical cancer in 1951, her cancerous cells live on. But what happens when her biological material generates billions of dollars for the drug and pharmaceutical industry, leaving her dirt poor descendants in the lurch?

Yeah, I know I wrote that like the teaser for one of my mysteries but the only mystery here is how people who have profited from the diseased cells that killed a woman can sleep at night while her kids and grand kids don't have two nickels to rub together
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Chelsea
This could have been an incredible book. Henrietta Lacks' story is finally told--and Skloot makes very clear how important Lacks' cells have been to the last 60 years of science and, paradoxically, how much Henrietta and her family suffered because those cells were taken from Henrietta without her consent.

But in her effort to contrast the importance and profitability of Henrietta's cells with the marginalization and impoverishment of Henrietta's family, Skloot makes three really big mistakes. F
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Will Byrnes
Updated - 8/8/13 - see article link at botom

On October 4, 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a thirty-one-year old black woman, died after a gruesome battle with a rapidly metastasizing cancer. During her treatment, the doctors at Johns Hopkins took some cells from her failing body and used them for research. This was not an unusual thing to have done in 1951. But the cells that came from Ms. Lacks’ body were unusual. They had qualities that made them uniquely valuable as research tools. Labeled “HeLa”, Hen
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Diane Librarian
I am late to this book party, but let me explain: I get twitchy about medical stuff. Earlier this year I had to abandon Rosemary Mahoney's book about the blind because it described an eye surgery. I have never been able to finish Dr. Atul Gawande's Complications because of its description of medical procedures. It was a small miracle that I was able to finish the Call the Midwife series, because I hate childbirth scenes.

When this Henrietta Lacks book started tearing up the bestseller lists a fe
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Stacey
I've started and erased my little book commentary so many times because this story is so overwhelming and so important on multiple levels, I'm not sure anything I could say about it would do justice to the complexity and dichotomy of the story surrounding Henrietta Lacks. It might not be far from the truth to state that she was the most important person who ever lived. A physical part of her body has saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives, and improved the lives of countless oth ...more
K.D. Absolutely
I am not sure how is it in other countries but here in the Philippines, if you bring your car for repair in a service center and the serviceman says that he replaced a part, you how to do in you should find that replaced part inside your car. I think it is their proof that they actually replaced that part and also for you to decide how you want to dispose, resell, reuse or recycle it. Normally, this practice bothers me because I have a very small space for junks at home and I do not know what to ...more
Rachel
Full disclosure: I come to this book from a weirdly fortuitous place. Take my brief, but mind-searing, stint in gynecologic oncology research ca. 2002, which involved a weekly trek to the OR to pick up still-warm tumors, with the women who informedly consented to donate them often open on the table as I did so. Then throw in two years working in a tissue culture hood, two more in a narrative nonfiction book group, and another big chunk of time studying infectious diseases. Mix in interests in so ...more
Christina
This was an interesting read. While I applaud Skloot's attempt to present a fair look at the history of the HeLa cell line used in research labs all over the world, the book is clearly skewed toward sympathy for the family. Not that they don't deserve sympathy, but really, the problems of the family is NOT the fault of anyone involved with the cell line. Don't get me wrong, Henrietta and her family have had a hard life, and they do deserve some sympathy. But not for this particular issue.

The sad
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Jean
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is is an extraordinary book. By turns it is shocking, informative and tragic. There is brilliance - but also deep injustice. It is in part an account of the development of genetics, part social commentary, and partly the story of one woman, Henrietta Lacks. She was an African-American woman descended from slaves and one white slave-owner (Lacks), and she lived as many hundreds of black people still did even as late as the 1950's, in poverty in an old slave-ca ...more
Gary
This is a book that everyone should read....especially if you're ever had surgery, been to a doctor of any kind, etc., etc., etc. This situation could have happened, or might happen to anyone....

What is sad about this story is it happened to a very beautiful,and naive African American woman, who was too poor to get good medical care,and died a horrible death,and yet she lives on..... find out how by reading this engaging, horrific story, set in the 1950's and the present....

Since this is a true
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rmn
This is a phenomenal book. If it doesn't win every non-fiction award for 2010 than whoever votes for non-fiction awards should have their library cards taken away from them*.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, does a masterful job of seamlessly weaving in the scientific story of Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells and the effect they have had on medicine and medical ethics with a real human interest story about Henrietta and the struggles of her family. Skloot does this without coming across as maudlin, pre
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Mag
It reads like good crime fiction. It chronicles the life of the woman whose cancerous tissue became the first tissue in history which could be successfully grown as culture and used in various, and countless, experiments from vaccine research to cloning. Her tissue was so successful in fact that it became virtually immortal, surviving in various environments and proliferating at prodigious rates. Yet, very little was known about the woman herself, her life, her family, her history, and this is w ...more
Katharine Holden
The first few pages recreating Henrietta Lacks' Johns Hopkins experience and death are interesting. The book loses momentum after that, and the author allows the book to become a venue for a long whine by certain members of the Lacks' family who feel that their relative poverty and deadbeat lives are due to no one having paid Mrs. Lacks for samples of her cervical cancer cells. Working hard, staying out of jail, getting an education, and, consequently, rising in the world, all seem not to have o ...more
Jude
it's as if the writer wanted the story the way i would want it, and self-observes the arc of her own education the way i would, so the emotional style resonated at a profound level: a combination of passion, humility & fearlessness that makes me trust the her completely, that makes me grateful she is the person who chose this story - or that it chose her.

& then there's the story - the science. the race & class issues, the muck of medical ethics before patients were real people and bl
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Jan-Maat
I don't know how many copies of a book need to be sold before it can be fairly described as a best-seller. In any case what kind of bearing does the number of copies sold have on the amount that a book is read? The success of Rebecca Skloot's book is maybe entirely unsurprising as it covers a wide range of angles and caters for many tastes. It has something of the ever popular misery mémoire, some social history, an investigative aspect with detective road trips, along with an exploration of one ...more
Ayelet Waldman
Holy shit this book is awesome.
K
Jun 10, 2010 K rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Just about anyone
Recommended to K by: goodreads
I blew through this fascinating audiobook, practically manufacturing housework to do so that I'd have an excuse to plug myself in (okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration; there was plenty of housework to do without my having to manufacture any). I would recommend this book to just about anyone seeking a great read -- even if you're usually more of a fiction person, this non-fiction book offers plenty of interesting characters and storylines as well as being informative and provocative in the way ...more
Brandon
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks passed away due to complications arising from cervical cancer. Following her death, cancerous cells were harvested from her body and used in ongoing experiments regarding the growth of cells outside the human body. Previous to Henrietta, scientists could only make it a few days before the cells would ultimately die, forcing them to start all over. Henrietta’s cells were different, they grew at an astounding rate and researchers were able to keep them alive. Since the dis ...more
Kate
This book irritated me from the beginning. It couldn't decide if it was a history of the cells, the life story of one woman, a chronicle of how an author tracks down the life story of a woman, a position paper on racism, a position paper on human tissue ownership, or a position paper on disorganized rhetoric.

I think it was all of those, and it drove me absolutely up the wall.

As a history of the HeLa cells ... I read a Wired article that was better.
As the life story of Henrietta Lacks ... it rea
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Kaora
A really powerful read about HeLa cells, taken without consent from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Her cells contributed to many of modern medicines discoveries, including the polio vaccine and gene mapping, and yet her family is still so poor they cannot afford health care hacing seen none of the money generated by these cells.

This book explores the debate about what makes up a person's body. Is a shed skin cell the property of the person whose DNA is within the cell, or have they given up thei
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Siria
Henrietta Lacks, a young African-American mother of five children, died in Baltimore in 1951 from a highly aggressive form of cervical cancer—but more than fifty years after her death, part of her lives on in the form of HeLa, a cell line cultivated from a tissue sample of hers which played a key role in several major scientific and medical breakthroughs. Skloot's book tells Lacks' story, partly to pay tribute to a woman who was forgotten by all but her family for many years despite her importan ...more
Wanda
A book like this makes me realize how important education in general and particularly science education is. Today’s science is yesterday’s magic—for those who don’t understand science, it can seem like very frightening black magic. The story of Henrietta Lacks explores the intersection between science, research, education, capitalism, civil rights, and consent.

The major question implicit in this book is whether we have any claim to our own cells after they have been removed from our bodies. Is i
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Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
4.5 stars

There's something here for everyone. Some people comment on the human interest aspect of the story with regard to the Lacks family. Other people mention the cell science. For me, the most interesting thing was the history of informed consent, or the "Lacks" thereof. (Go ahead and laugh now at my clever wordplay. You know you want to.)
It's hard to believe the bizarre ways people's bodies were used for medical research, with or without their consent. Even when they did give consent, they
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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 other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. She has worked as a co ...more
More about Rebecca Skloot...
The Best American Science Writing 2011 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: The Young Reader's Edition The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015

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“Like the Bible said,' Gary whispered, 'man brought nothing into this world and he'll carry nothing out. Sometimes we care about stuff too much. We worry when there's nothing to worry about.” 59 likes
“But I tell you one thing, I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you while you stay the same, and that's just sad.” 36 likes
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