The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Description

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.



More Ways to Learn Cell Biology

Cell division

7th - College | Online class

One of the major goals of dividing cells is to split up their DNA as perfectly as possible. (Incorrect division of DNA = chance of a nonfunctional cell, or even cancer!) Learn how DNA combines with...

Free

Structure of a cell

9th - College | Online class

You, my friend, are made up of cells. Lots and lots of them. Some of them are eukaryotic (human), but many more of them are prokaryotic, thanks to the friendly bacteria of your gut, skin, and other...

Free

Cellular respiration

High School - College | Online class

How do your cells extract energy from the food that you eat? As it turns out, cells have a network of elegant metabolic pathways dedicated to just this task. Learn more about cellular respiration,...

Free

The Biology Project: Cell Biology

High School - College | Online resource

Basic information on cells, mitosis, meiosis, the cell cycle, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, & viruses. This website includes problem sets to test your knowledge.

Free

Amazing Cells

8th - College | Online resource

Learn about the structure of cells, their size and function and how they communicate. This free resource from the University of Utah provides videos and interactives to help learners understand...

Free

Cells

College | Online class

2A: Not all shall pass! Yards have fences, and cells have membranes. You don’t want just anybody waltzing into your backyard. Similarly, a healthy cell doesn’t just let in any random molecule –...

Free

Membranes and transport

High School - College | Online class

How do the cells in your body define their boundaries (and control what comes in or goes out)? As it turns out, cells have a sophisticated and flexible barrier, the plasma membrane, and a wide...

Free

3-5 Life Science: Organisms and Cells

3rd - 5th | Printable, Product

3-5 Core Curriculum – Life Science: Organisms and Cells Take your children on this fascinating virtual journey inside living organisms to explore cells and cellular structure! Highlights include 10...

$15

Cell Biology Content

9th - College | Online resource

This resources has basic information on cell biology including the cell cycle, organelles, mitosis and meiosis. It has excellent interactives that allow students to identify the cell parts and...

Free

See all resources for Cell Biology