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2012 Book Discussions > The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Lindsay♫Sings (LindsaySings) | 136 comments Mod
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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.


message 2: by Ashley (new)

Ashley (sprtychick10) I am really enjoying this book. I don't know what I was expecting but I am finding this book really interesting. I am about half way through and am curious to see how the book wraps up.


message 3: by Christine (new)

Christine K | 61 comments I can't wait for this to get in from B&N, should be early this week. I'm almost done w/ Don't Breathe a Word and want to dive right into this afterwards.


message 4: by Courtney (new)

Courtney (cwest1011) | 15 comments Just finished two other books I was reading and I'm excited to begin this on my flights tomorrow. I'll check back later this week!


message 5: by Kendra (new)

Kendra | 1 comments I am really enjoying this book as well. I have had it on my list for a while but other books tend to jump the line. I can't put it down and I even brought my reader with me today so I can sneak some pages in during breaks.


message 6: by Ashley (new)

Ashley (sprtychick10) I finished it yesterday. Thank you snow day! I can't wait to start discussing it.


message 7: by Christine (new)

Christine K | 61 comments Got my shipment in the mail- going to start on this today!


Lindsay♫Sings (LindsaySings) | 136 comments Mod
I'm not even close to finishing this book yet, but feel free to start discussing anytime! Also, I will post some discussion questions I found on this website. Discuss away! I'll catch up soon! :)

(view spoiler)


message 9: by Christine (new)

Christine K | 61 comments this book is why I'm glad I joined the book club. I've been wanting to read it forever but was worried I'd slug through it... not at all! I'm half done already and have found it to be a real page turner. I've studied things mentioned in this book from HeLa to the Tuskegee syphilis studies. this book has reawakened my interest in biotechnology and given me snaps of history I probably wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. Great read so far!


message 10: by Lindsey (new)

Lindsey | 10 comments I agree - I'm really enjoying it too! I've always been really interested in biology/genetics/biotech, so this is right up my alley. I hadn't heard of HeLa cells before (surprisingly? Or if I did at some point, I don't remember it), but I am finding this intently interesting and thought-provoking.


message 11: by Christine (new)

Christine K | 61 comments So... Pneumoencephalography... anyone else largely affected by this section when we learned about Elsie???


message 12: by Ashley (new)

Ashley (sprtychick10) Christine wrote: "So... Pneumoencephalography... anyone else largely affected by this section when we learned about Elsie???"

The chapter where they talked about this and the lack of patient care for the mentally insane was one of the hardest chapters to read for me. I felt so bad for Elsie and Deborah when she found out about this. The thought of a doctor doing this to a loved one who couldn't defend themself is so hard to imagine.


message 13: by Ashley (new)

Ashley (sprtychick10) What did I learn from reading "TILoHL"?

It reinforced how important science is to medicine and how far we have come in the field of cancer/medicine. It renewed an interest/passion of mine for biology and I really enjoyed when the scientists would explain the results of the experiments that had been conducted and how the HeLa cell had been so important to the medical field.

I also learned to have a bigger respect for the advances the medical field has made. I take for granted my health and can't imagine being terminally ill and being treated the way Henrietta was when she had cancer. It seemed so inhumane.

What surprised me the most?

I was sad to read that Deborah died before the book was published. She fought the book so hard from being written but once she helped discover the information on her mother and sister she really got into the researching with the author.

What disturbed me the most?

No doubt it was the chapter on pneumoencephalography done on Elsie, Deborah's sister. My heart broke for her. She had no way of defending herself or refusing the procedure, if the patients were even allowed to refuse the treatment.


message 14: by Courtney (new)

Courtney (cwest1011) | 15 comments I am still only halfway finished with the book, but I really just wanted to mention how much I am finding myself drawn in to the story. I thought it would be more science-y, but I'm pleased to read all of the parts about HeLa's life, even though some of them are far-removed from any life experiences I've had. Additionally, I'm surprised that through all of the biology and science classes I've taken in 7 years of college and through two degrees that I have never heard of HeLa cells before. I consider myself a fairly educated person, between watching the news and keeping up to date with what is happening in the word, and I'm slightly disappointed this is my first introduction to the HeLa cells.


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