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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - Excerpt

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - Excerpt

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4.16

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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.
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.

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Publish date: Mar 8, 2011
Added to Scribd: Feb 03, 2010
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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04/30/2014

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marlene9nl reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Finished this book last night.
I did not know beforehand what this book would be about so when I started reading about cells and tissue matter and cancer I thought to myself. O no, This is not a book for me! The next morning I woke up and felt a pain and immediately thought "do I have cancer?" Yes I am a bit of a hypochondriac, I admit it. lol.
Anyways, I did find it very interesting cause I had the worst biology teacher ever (or maybe it was me come to think of it, worst pupil?) and do not know much about that subject.
After reading half I did have a bit of a How shall I call it, not really wanting to read more cause I did not really like the way the family of Henriette acted in the book but I am glad I read on. I've learned a lot and even though it appears these people seemingly always shout, I see the good in them and understand now better how hard it was for them to find out.
The questions at the end of the book are intriguing and I am planning to google more about tissue donation, the law about that , Hela cells and the likes. So after all I am not regretting having bought this book.
ldvoorberg reviewed this
Rated 3/5
A story that needs to be told and heard by anyone connected to Biology and related sciences. I like that the family's story (the human interest side) is mixed with the scientific research and ethical discussions. It also works to hide any gaps in the chronology! :)
nmele_4 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
An incredible book! Skloot somehow tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants along with the story of her interest in Henrietta Lacks and her involvement with her family and the story of the struggle for patients and research subjects to gain some control over their own body tissues. Since Lacks and her family are African-American, Skloot manages to explore racism in medicine as well. Her compassionate but objective portraits of Henrietta Lacks' children and their struggles are as interesting as the intertwined stories she tells.
lindap69 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
I like when science is presented within a story and Skloot does an excellent job with this combo.
satyridae reviewed this
Rated 3/5
I liked the afterword best, with its discussion and analysis of the murky ethics of tissue donation and tissue ownership. For me, that was the strongest component of the book.

The story of Lacks is a sad one, and the story of the HeLa cells is fascinating. The intersection of those stories is very odd. The book is very involving and frankly a little draining to read. I felt sorry for the family for all sorts of different reasons, not the least of which was their portrayal in this book. The reportage on the Lacks family members was a little disconcerting although I believe Skloot was being very accurate in her descriptions.

Well worth reading, but overwhelming and strange.
jillkb reviewed this
Rated 5/5
I learned a lot from reading this book -- about science, medicine, and perhaps most importanly, Henrietta Lacks. I'm glad this book is bringing her memory widespread attention.

I hate that Henrietta and and her family suffered so much because of how her cells were used. And Skloot emphasizes the irony that while Henrietta's cells made so much medical progress possible, her children and grandchildren can't even keep health insurance.

This book was also significant because it's the 1st book I've read on an e-reader. Although I think I will enjoy having my Nook when I travel, I prefer paper books -- especially when you want to be able to flip back and forth among pages or take notes.
mawls reviewed this
Rated 4/5
The author does a great job of blending the science and personal sides of the story. Found the story fascinating and enjoyed it more than I thought I would before picking it up.
akmargie reviewed this
Rated 3/5
In interesting story about tissue research and the larger ethical and commercial issue of biology patents and discovery. The author weaves together the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cancer cells that spawned an immortal cell line, HeLa and the fallout that her family has dealt with since. It gets weird toward the end which is why I didn't rate it higher, too much information about the Lacks family that I didn't feel was necessary to the story. Also the narrator said "culture" as in cell cultures funny. Understandable given the word and the amount of times I'm sure she had to say it that overenunciating made sure it didn't come out sounding as culchurch or something equally silly but still it got on my nerves. Still good.
sullywriter_1 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
Superbly written nonfiction. A fascinating topic that raises many provocative questions about medical ethics and research.
e5j reviewed this
Rated 4/5
I feel like everyone should read this book. If you've ever had so much as blood taken you could have tissue samples closed away somewhere in a scary doctor's lab. The more you know.

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