Kathleen Hagen's Reviews > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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Apr 03, 2010

bookshelves: 2010-audio-books, 2010-nonfiction
Read in March, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Vahni Turpin, produced by Random House Audio, downloaded from audible.com.

This is an amazing book by an author who became obsessed with finding out who Henrietta Lack was after she heard that the cells she was studying in biology came from a real person dead for half a century. It took ten years to write this book, and we see her trial and error attempts to gain the trust of the Lacks family, especially Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, in order to find out about Henrietta. In the audio version, Skloot is interviewed at the end of the book about the process of writing it. The publisher’s note explains this book as well as I could:
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 60 years.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer,
viruses, and the atom bombs 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 Henriettas 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 20 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.
Rebecca was interviewed at the end of the audio edition. Her enthusiasm and warmth and love for the Lacks family came through loud and clear. It added immeasurably to the audio edition.
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