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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Unabridged Audio Book

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Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin

12 Hours 30 Minutes

Random House (Audio)

February 2010

Audio Book Summary

Now a major motion picture from HBO® starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

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.

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  • Anonymous

    The medical community showed very little compassion for Henrietta or her familiy. I'm not convinced this situation has changed when it comes to medical research. I can only hope the racist aspects have improved. Well researched and written.

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  • Fredrika H.

    MIND BLOWING!!!!!!! Written so well and I would listen to any non fiction narrated by Cassandra Campbell, she is my all time favorite

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  • Mollie S.

    Absolutely amazing! I loved this book so much that I was looking for any opportunity I could find to listen to it.

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  • Annabree F.

    This is one of the most profoundly moving stories I have ever read. The story is disturbing at times and so very tragic for the most part. The narrator was fantastic and helped me get through the more difficult subject matter. It is a story worth listening to and will stay with me for a long time.

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  • nab6215

    I don't even know where to start about this book. It is like "Roots" for human HeLa cell culture, but it's also about Henrietta Lacks and her family. This book took TEN YEARS to write. Wow. The end of the audiobook included an interview with Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book. Although you could tell that Rebecca got close to Henrietta's daughter, Deborah in the book, it came through in the warmth of Rebecca's voice during the interview. The original idea may have been who is the woman behind the HeLa cells, but it became much more.

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  • Sakena P

    This is a great audiobook! I enjoyed how the author went in-depth on the family story as well as the history human cells and the research work. The book really showed the struggles and dilemmas from various perspectives. Thoroughly enjoyed the voice narratives and how it drew me into the story.

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  • Lorena Cardenas

    Fantastic audiobook. Rebecca went over and beyond to gather information about Henrietta and the family. So much that I was unaware about until I heard the history about HELA.

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  • Tarita Dooley

    This was an amazing tribute to the Lacks family and it was so informative. I enjoyed every moment of the narration and format in which the story was told. I hope that this is a story that will be instituted in the high schools for students to learn more about the very interesting build and outcome of this story. Amazing absolutely amazing to caputure not only the scientific points but to include where this amazing scientific and medical research breakthrough originated from. Great work!

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  • vivian tas

    Very educational story, well researched and documented. Interesting and different. This is a wow story for anyone who hasn't read this story. Very interesting that the story was real biography, and a non-fiction. I would recommend this book to others. Narrator was very good, talking the different accents of the different ethnic groups. Very well done, as if I was right there with them in Clover, Baltimore, VA, and in those decades around 1950's to 1970's.

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  • Shalean Williams

    This book is written so brilliantly and easy to understand. Ms. Rebecca put her heart and soul in this book.

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