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Friday, January 13, 2017

#Audiobook #Review: 5 out of 5 stars for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot @RebeccaSkloot @PRHAudio #HENRIETTALACKS #HeLa

TITLE: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
AUTHOR: Rebecca Skloot
NARRATORS: Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin
PUBLISHER: Random House Audio
PUBLICATION DATE: February 2, 2010
FORMAT: Unabridged audiobook
LENGTH: 12 hrs and 30 mins 
GENRE: Biography, Memoir, Nonfiction
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.

This is non-fiction that is so unbelievable that it reads like fiction!

Henrietta Lacks' name has been on my radar for many years. I already knew that her cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, but I had no idea about all the other stuff that this book contained. Rebecca Skloot is one heck of an investigative journalist! She conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews with members of Henrietta’s family and friends, as well as poring over legal documents, medical records, and diary entries.

In the late 1940s, a tumor started growing inside of Henrietta Lacks. She could feel that it was there and knew exactly where it was located. She attended at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, but not until a couple years later when she had pain and bleeding. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and underwent radiation treatment, but it was not effective. She died later that same year, in 1951. Most astounding is that the physician that was treating her routinely took cell and tissue samples from patients without their knowledge. There was no such thing as informed consent back then! The cells were named HeLa after the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names. What makes HeLa cells so unusual is their ability to continue to replicate. They can divide and grow with no limitation, providing an endless supply to researchers who want to study them and experiment with them. So, while the medical industry was selling her cells to anyone who asked for them, the Lacks family didn’t even realize that this was going on! They had no knowledge that her cells existed or that a sample had been taken.

Rebecca first became interested in HeLa cells when she heard a professor talk about them in a lecture that she attended when she was only 16 years old. She peppered her professor with questions about Henrietta, but he couldn’t answer them. He said that all anyone knew was that she was black. He suggested that she could do her own research and tell him about it for some extra credit. And so it began! She eventually made contact with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and told her that she wanted to tell Henrietta’s story which is what led to this book.

I loved how Rebecca humanized the HeLa cells and educated us about the woman that they came from. Henrietta’s background is a tough one, having lost her mother at an early age and being sent to live with her grandfather where she shared a room with her first cousin, David. They eventually had children together and married. One child, daughter Elsie, was mentally challenged and was sent to an institution. Sadly, Rebecca also uncovers the experimentation that was conducted on Elsie.

This era was before my time, so I didn’t realize the extent to which racial segregation existed in those days. I didn’t know that “colored” folks had their own ward in the hospital, how even blood was labelled “colored” or not, and that African-Americans were subjected to medical experimentation (such as, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment). This was a real eye-opener for me!

I love Rebecca’s passion, enthusiasm, and determination to bring this story to fruition. She did a commendable job, and I am not surprised that Oprah is producing and starring in this movie which will be aired on HBO later this year. I look forward to seeing it!

This is the official book trailer:

Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin are both new-to-me narrators, and they were both top-notch! I thought the pair of them were both very well suited to the story. Here is a sample of their narration:


5 stars!! It was superb, and I highly recommend this book to EVERYONE!

This book qualifies as:
Task #4 for my Goodreads Winter Seasonal Scavenger Challenge - Skiing
#24 for my A Non-Fiction Adventure


  1. Congratulations on winning Book Date's challenge this year!

    This book certainly advanced you in your challenges!

    1. Thank you! Yes, this book hit a lot of my challenges :)


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