Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: From a single,
abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that
made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science
possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca
Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a
fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life
is sustained in laboratories and in memory. Henrietta Lacks was a
mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from
the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive
cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous
tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom
then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century
biology: human cells that could survive--even thrive--in the lab.
Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a
building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the
cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to live
in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery
decades later of her unknowing contribution--and her cells'
strange survival--left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion.
For a decade, Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the
threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family
while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with
their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the
questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories?
Amazon Exclusive: Jad Abumrad Reviews The Immortal Life of
Jad Abumrad is host and creator of the public radio hit
Radiolab, now in its seventh season and reaching over a million
people monthly. Radiolab combines cutting-edge production with a
philosophical approach to big ideas in science and beyond, and an
inventive method of storytelling. Abumrad has won numerous
awards, including a National Headliner Award in Radio and an
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Science Journalism Award. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review
of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:
Honestly, I can't imagine a better tale.
A detective story that's at once mythically large and painfully
Just the simple facts are hard to believe: that in 1951, a poor
black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but
pieces of the tumor that killed her--taken without her knowledge
or consent--live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then
thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines,
then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this
one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become
a foundation of modern science--leading to breakthroughs in gene
mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how
viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other
things). All of which is to say: the science end of this story is
enough to blow one's mind right out of one's face.
But what's truly remarkable about Rebecca Skloot's book is that
we also get the rest of the story, the part that could have
easily remained hidden had she not spent ten years unearthing it:
Who was Henrietta Lacks? How did she live? How she did die?
Did her family know that she'd become, in some sense, immortal,
and how did that affect them? These are crucial questions,
because science should never forget the people who gave it life.
And so, what unfolds is not only a reporting tour de force but
also a very entertaining account of Henrietta, her ancestors, her
cells and the scientists who grew them.
The book ultimately channels its journey of discovery though
Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her
mother, and who dreamt of one day being a scientist.
As Deborah Lacks and Skloot search for answers, we're bounced
effortlessly from the tiny tobacco-farming Virginia hamlet of
Henrietta's childhood to modern-day Baltimore, where Henrietta's
family remains. Along the way, a series of unforgettable
juxtapositions: cell culturing bumps into faith healings, cutting
edge medicine collides with the dark truth that Henrietta's
family can't afford the health insurance to care for diseases
their mother's cells have helped to cure.
Rebecca Skloot tells the story with great sensitivity, urgency
and, in the end, damn fine writing. I highly recommend this book.
Look Inside The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Click on thumbnails for larger images
Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.
Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s older daughter, about five years before
she was committed to Crownsville State Hospital, with a diagnosis
Deborah Lacks at about age four.
The home-house where Henrietta was raised, a four-room log cabin
in Clover, Virginia, that once served as slave quarters. (1999)
Main Street in downtown Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta was
raised, circa 1930s.
Margaret Gey and Minnie, a lab technician, in the Gey lab at
Hopkins, circa 1951.
Deborah with her children, LaTonya and Alfred, and her second
husband, James Pullum, in the mid-1980s.
In 2001, Deborah developed a severe case of hives after learning
upsetting new information about her mother and sister.
Deborah and her cousin Gary Lacks standing in front of drying
The Lacks family in 2009.