The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  • by Rebecca Skloot
  • Narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
  • 12 hrs and 30 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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.
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 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.


Audible Editor Reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is both a story of scientific progress and a biography of the poor Southern family whose matriarch, Henrietta Lacks, made that progress possible. It is also a critical exploration of the interplay between science, race, class, and ethics in the United States. Finally, it is, at times, the personal narrative of Rebecca Skloot, a reporter who worked for 10 years to learn these stories and to tell them. Cassandra Campbell’s performance captures the full range of tone in these elegantly woven narratives. She delivers what the story demands of her, uniting several storytelling styles into one single, dynamic voice.
In her narration, Campbell makes particularly masterful use of distance and proximity. At some points in the story, she has the cool tone of an investigative reporter, duly noting the gruesome evidence of patient mistreatment at the Hospital for the Negro Insane in the 1950s or the horrors of medical malpractice in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. When she tells the stories of the members of the Lacks family, her voice is warm and compassionate, but still carries the distinct distance of a biographer/observer. And, at a few rare but poignant moments in the story, Campbell’s voice sounds exposed and intimately close to the listener’s ear, as the narrative brings us inside Skloot’s own struggle to understand and cope with the uncomfortable truths and thorny issues Henrietta’s story raises.
Bahni Turpin, who performs the dialogue for all the members of the Lacks family, supplies those voices with more than the appropriate dialect. Though she speaks for several different characters — some of them appear only briefly or infrequently in the story — Turpin manages to give unique weight and depth to each. Her portrayal of Zacharia Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest son, is perhaps most exceptional in its taciturn conveyance of anger, love, and pain. —Emily Elert


What the Critics Say

"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time…The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks…floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain.…it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)
"Writing with a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force." (Booklist)
"Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about 'faith, science, journalism, and grace.'...A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people." (Publishers Weekly)


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Customer Reviews

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Get This Book!!!

I cannot say enough good things about this book. Yes, it is a book about science; and you will understand it. It is a book about a family; and you will love them. It is a book that honestly explores racism;and you will cringe. It is a book about a tenacious reporter; and you will know this was her book to write....The narration is exceptional. This book will inspire you, break your heart, and teach you. Buy the book , use your credit, you will not regret getting this great read.
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The Secret Life of an American Cancer Cell

About a month ago, I donated blood at the American Red Cross. I'm there about every other month - or exactly at 56 days, depending on how persistent those cheerful calls, with their underlying tone of urgency, are. Last time I was there, there was an addition to the binder of forms I needed to review: a disclosure that my blood could be used for research, and if I didn't agree to that, I shouldn't donate.

I was puzzled: why the consent now, since Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" had been published in 2010? I hadn't read the book, but I had followed the debate about informed consent. I didn't really think about how the Lacks family felt about Henrietta's cells (called HeLa) living in labs twice as long as Henrietta herself did. I sure didn't think about HeLa economics.

On June 13, 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Docket 12-398. On August 7, 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced that they had reached an agreement with Henrietta's descendants to use HeLa cells with the informed consent of a board, including two of her family members.

I heard an interview with Skloot shortly after on NPR, and decided it was time to read/listen to "The Immortal Life." I was astounded by the sheer tenacity of HeLa cells (cancer cells from an especially aggressive form of cervical cancer caused by one of the HPV viruses, strengthened by untreated neuro-syphillis) and by the research and discoveries based on those cells. HeLa was instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine, tests to identify cancer, studies on chemical toxicity . . . and so much more. When I checked PubMed as I wrote this review, there were 76,057 peer reviewed articles with HeLa mentioned in the abstracts.

Skloot's careful research, wonderfully descriptive writing, and absolute respect for the Lacks family was evident. Skloot described the family and some of its very memorable members, especially Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who really wanted to know the HeLa story - but was also afraid to find out everything, for good reason. Skloot avoids a sociological analysis of the Lacks family, which is good - that would have made them a 'study', not real people. There was an overarching irony: despite the invaluable contribution Henrietta made to medicine, most of her surviving family did not have medical insurance.

Skloot was careful to use the actual dialect and pronunciations of the people she interviewed in the Audible book. I don't know how it looked in writing, but it made a good listen. The narrators, Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, worked well together.

I'll still donate blood, of course - but from now, my imagination of what my cells are doing won't be limited to surgeries involving people who have the same blood type.

This Audible book doesn't come with a downloadable reference guide, but there are pictures of the Lacks family and a lot of the scientists mentioned in the book available on Google Books.

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- Cynthia "Always moving. Always listening. Always learning. "After all this time?" "Always.""

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-02-2010
  • Publisher: Random House Audio