The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks Book Summary By Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot provides readers with a unique look into the incredible story of a poor tobacco farmer who died from cervical cancer, and how her cell strand, HeLa, became a pivotal part of modern medical science.

Skloot's captivating investigation reveals the history of Henrietta and her family, how they were exploited by the medical industry, and how Henrietta's immortal cells contributed to finding treatments for diseases like polio.

The book also sheds light on the ongoing ethical debates surrounding the use of human DNA material in medical research.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Book Name: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (How one woman's cells changed scientific thinking forever.)

Author(s): Rebecca Skloot

Rating: 4.4/5

Reading Time: 25 Minutes

Categories: Book Summaries

Author Bio

Rebecca Skloot is an acclaimed science writer known for her work in the New York Times Magazine, Discover, and more.

As a correspondent for both PBS and NPR, she continues to captivate audiences with her research, prose and stories about some of the most important topics in science today.

In 2010, Rebecca sold the film rights for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Alan Ball and Oprah Winfrey - further demonstrating her capability as a gifted storyteller to bring complex scientific subjects to life through her words.

Undoubtedly, her work has specialized the public about numerous medical mysteries that can be used to better the lives of many people throughout the world.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks: Unravelling The Mystery Of A Name And Cell Strands That Changed Medicine

Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of the woman behind the world’s first immortal cells.

Until recently, the life of Henrietta Lacks has been a mystery to many, despite her cells having had a huge impact on incredible advancements in medicine over the past half-century.

With Rebecca Skloot’s brilliant book, we get to learn about this amazing woman and her battle against cancer that she ultimately succumbed to.

We also get to learn about her immortal HeLa (pronounced hee-lah) cells—their importance for medical research and their rise in establishing an entire cell-culture industry.

The reader will learn about why their cells are kept in storage for years after visiting the doctor, which stories plantation owners spread among their slaves about doctors coming to abduct them and what lies behind the tension between black Americans and the medical industry.

This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in medical history, black American history, and future cell research.

The Life And Legacy Of Henrietta Lacks: How A Tobacco Farmer Changed Medical Science Forever

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black American woman, born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia.

She worked on her family’s tobacco farm and by the time she was twenty, Henrietta had married her cousin David and they were starting to have children of their own.

The young family faced difficulties due to poverty and moved to Sparrows Point near Baltimore.

This would be significant later in her life as it was here that she went to the local Johns Hopkins gynecology center 10 years later, after discovering a lump on her cervix.

Doctors determined that Henrietta had epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix – an extremely aggressive form of cancer – and she reluctantly consented for any treatments or surgery which they thought necessary.

Despite undergoing intense radiation treatment Henrietta eventually succumbed to cancer and passed away on October 4th, 1951.

George Gey’S Invention Of The Roller-Tube Culturing Technique Enables Hela Cells To Become “Immortal”

The story of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable one, even despite the ultimate tragedy of her passing due to cancer.

What truly sets this story apart is that although she did not survive her illness, her cells have lived on and become an invaluable asset to science.

When researchers at Johns Hopkins extracted Henrietta’s cells and placed them in a culture medium, they found they were able to remain alive far longer than any other cells tested before thanks to an innovative roller-tube culturing technique invented by George Gey.

To everyone’s surprise and delight, these cells – labelled HeLa after the first two letters of Henrietta’s name – not only survived, but also flourished; doubling every 24 hours!

This incredible transformation was made possible thanks to Gey’s technique as well as the aggressive nature of the HeLa cell line compared to other types of cells that had been previously tested.

Mary Kubicek was then able to distribute these cells over multiple test tubes for additional testing in various research labs, which ultimately led to breakthroughs in treatments for illnesses such as polio and cancer.

Although it seems bittersweet that while Henrietta Lacks succumbed to her illness her cells – dubbed “HeLa” – survived and thrived beyond anything that was expected, without a doubt her legacy will live on and be remembered through time.

Hela Cells: The First Mass-Produced Cell Line And A Key To Unlocking The Polio Cure

Hela Cells

To help combat diseases like polio and cancer, scientists created a HeLa cell factory.

With its low cost of production and research, and the ability to grow in culture mediums, the HeLa cells were prime candidates for this mass-producing operation.

As George Gey tested different methods of transportation for sending these cells around the country, their resilient nature meant that it was possible for them to do so without damage or loss in quality.

Not only that, but the HeLa cells were highly susceptible to polio virus – making them an even more attractive option for researchers seeking a cure.

Understanding just how beneficial these cells would be to biomedical science and medicine, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) set up what would become known as the HeLa Distribution Center.

This facility was devoted solely to growing and shipping masses of the cells all over the country.

Soon enough studies began to explore not only polio but various other illnesses as well – with positive results achieved due in part to this factory of HeLa cells.

The History Of Exploitation Of Black Americans In Medical Studies Helped Explain The Lacks Family’S Reservations About Henrietta’S Hela Cells

Although Henrietta Lacks’ cells quickly spread around the world, her name and family were largely forgotten as time passed.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book summary details how this happened.

When author Rebecca Skloot stumbled across articles concerning the HeLa cells in 1999, she contacted their originator, Roland Pattillo.

He revealed that the Lacks family was reluctant to speak about Henrietta or her surviving cells with anyone.

This reluctance stemmed from the fact that they believed doctors had taken them without her permission or even informing her what would happen to them.

On top of that, there was a distrust caused by long-standing medical exploitation of black Americans – especially exemplified by the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

The author attempted to reach out to Henrietta’s husband and children for an interview, but unfortunately no one showed up.

Undeterred by this setback, Rebecca decided to travel to Clover, VA in search of distant relatives who might be able to put her in contact with the immediate family members.

Ultimately though, due to all these factors, Henrietta and her family were left largely forgotten as her immortal cells spread throughout the globe.

The Transformative Power Of Learning About A Loved One’S Past

Following the death of Henrietta Lacks, her family was met with insurmountable financial troubles.

Day, Henrietta’s widower, had to take on two jobs in order to make ends meet for his children – Lawrence, Sonny, Joe, and Deborah.

Although the children yearned to gain understanding about their mother’s whereabouts, they remained obedient toward their father’s strict rule against asking questions of any kind.

Many years later when Deborah was an adolescent in high school she confronted her father with questions regarding her mother’s identity and mysterious disappearance.

Unfortunately, all he would disclose was that her name was Henrietta Lacks and she passed away before Deborah could create a lasting remembrance.

The author embarked on a mission to discover more information about the beloved Henrietta and traveled to Baltimore & Clover in Virginia to connect with her relatives.

While doing so, she also contacted medical practitioners that were originally involved in Henrietta’s case which helped bridge a missing link between the family & medical field.

The journey offered more clarity as well as a unique opportunity for both the author and those connected to Henrietta to obtain knowledge not previously known before.

How Historical Tensions Between Black People And The Medical Industry Influenced Henrietta Lacks’ Family’S Distrust Of White Reporters

Henrietta Lacks

Black Americans have had a long history of wariness toward the medical profession, stemming from incidents of exploitation, mistreatment and discrimination.

In the 1800s, for example, white slave owners were known to instill fear in black people by making up stories about “night doctors” who would kidnap black people and use them for experiments.

These tales were a form of psychological manipulation and could be seen as an early form of white supremacy.

In addition to these false rumors, there are documented instances where medical experiments were conducted on slaves as part of testing new surgical techniques.

Furthermore, hospitals and research centers offered money for bodies on which to experiment during the 1900s, making the situation even more dire for black people.

Moreover, Johns Hopkins University’s proximity to a poor black area further added to their trepidation towards the school and its motives.

Today this deep-seated apprehension has been passed down through the years which is why Henrietta Lacks’ family was initially hesitant of author Rebecca Skloot when it came to telling her story – due partly to her being a white reporter with limited knowledge of the history between minorities and the medical field.

Fortunately she was successful in documenting not only Lacks’ story but also uncovering the historical tension between black people and medicine that drove Lacks’ family’s suspicion in general.

Gartler’S Revelation Revealed The Contaminating Power Of Hela Cells And Undermined Research Progress

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells us of the incredible impact the HeLa cell line had in the world of science.

Because these cells were so hardy and able to survive in many conditions, they were used in a multitude of research studies at institutions across the globe.

Although HeLa cells offered hope of curing various diseases, there was also a dark side that went with them.

It was discovered in 1966 by geneticist Stanley Gartler that all cell cultures had one marker in common – indicating that HeLa cells had contaminated them.

Not only could these infect other cultures from unwashed hands and lab equipment, but they could quickly reproduce and spread out, corrupting the research done up to that point.

As a result, much scientific progress fueled by research on various cell cultures suddenly became questionable and potentially invalidated.

The assumption that certain cell lines had their own unique characteristics was now cast into doubt due to HeLa’s prevalence throughout the whole field of study.

Thus, although HeLa cells helped many scientific discoveries along their way, their prevalence threatened much research as well – showing us yet another complexity behind this truly fascinating story.

How Hela Contamination Led To The Connecting Of The Lacks Family And Medical Professionals

When scientists were trying to learn more about the HeLa cells, they had to start by locating Henrietta’s surviving family.

Fortunately, the Lacks family were patients at Johns Hopkins, so it was easy for doctors to get in touch with them.

Scientists and researchers realized that in order to gain insights about the HeLa virus, they had to find the Lacks clan first.

This led to Victor McKusick from Yale University getting his postdoctoral fellow Susan Hsu on board.

She was tasked with tracking down Day Lacks and his children Lawrence, Sonny and Deborah for blood samples.

Even Joe – now known as Zakariyya – who was in prison, had a sample taken from him.

It is believed that Susan informed Day that the Blood Work was for research only but according to Day’s kids, he said it was for cancer screening purposes only; which of these stories are true remain unknown.

Due to Deborah nearing her Mother’s age when she got Cancer, she grew increasingly worried; hence she began asking questions regarding Henrietta’s life and condition leaving no stone unturned.

To get answers that satisfied her quench of knowledge, Deborah visited Johns Hopkins where scientists requested additional blood samples as part of their study – this also included discussing Henrietta’s case – effectively bringing both sides together in an attempt shed more light on HeLa cells while also allaying Deborah’s emotions through factual information.

Thehela Cell Case Puts A Spotlight On Patients’ Rights And The Controversies Surrounding Profiting From Medical Samples


The HeLa case may have been an egregious example of medical research done without the consent of a patient, but it was certainly not the only case.

In fact, there are at least two more similar cases that occurred around the same time.

The first involves John Moore, an Alaska pipeline worker who was diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia in 1976.

He underwent radical treatment and his spleen was removed and sold to researchers as “Mo” cells, without his knowledge or consent.

Moore sued for breach of privacy, but because this happened before any regulations prohibited this type of activity, he lost his case.

Another case involves Ted Slavin, who was born with hemophilia and had antibodies to hepatitis B in his blood.

His doctor informed him that he could make money from commercial use of his cell line and together with Nobel Prize winning virologist Baruch Blumberg, helped develop treatments for hepatitis B – all without Slavin’s explicit consent.

These cases and others like them demonstrate just how important it is that patients’ rights be respected when it comes to medical research using their cells or tissues.

Too often we treat people as objects to be studied rather than human beings who deserve autonomy over their own bodies.

We must strive to ensure that no individual is ever subject to such injustice again by considering what measures should be in place to prevent this from happening in the future.

The heated debate over who owns our cells has been going on for decades now.

Those who argue for the rights of patients to own their cells highlight the need for informed consent and transparency regarding the use of samples taken from diagnostic procedures.

They point to potential ethical issues, such as nuclear weapon testing, intelligence studies and experiments involving racial differences, as reason why these rights should be established and respected.

On the other hand, those who favor medical research argue that current legislation is sufficient and that institutions are adequately monitoring this issue.

They claim that it is necessary to keep samples stored in order to ensure faster diagnosis of diseases, as well as advance medical knowledge so that further treatments can be discovered.

The issue of financial gains when it comes to cell marketing remains unclear.

Questions such as gene patenting have raised concern over ownership and distribution of biological materials.

President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission report proposed that tissue researches should hold more rigid standards in terms of controlling how the use of patient’s samples is regulated; however, no consensus was reached on the financial aspect.

Ultimately cells do not belong just to anyone but patient’s rights must also be respected alongside our right to conduct medical research because both are essential to progress in medicine.

Wrap Up

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a powerful story about one woman’s unexpected legacy.

It’s a story about how Henrietta’s cells, named HeLa, become integral to medical breakthroughs in curing polio and other diseases without her ever knowing it.

Her cells were extracted from her body without her knowledge during treatment for cervical cancer, and she sadly died before understanding their immense significance to science and medical progress.

This book reveals the importance of consent when it comes to medical research and offers hope that ethical solutions can be found when there are challenges along the way.

It is an unforgettable story that will stay with you long after you read it.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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