The Common Reading Experience 2011-2012

About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author with book
"Rich, enthralling
story"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, tells the rich, enthralling story of Henrietta Lacks, the forgotten woman behind one of the most important tools in modern medicine, and of Lacks's descendants, many of whom feel betrayed by the scientific establishment...

...Rebecca Skloot brilliantly weaves together the Lackses' story — past and present — with the story of the first culturing of HeLa cells, the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, and the birth of bioethics. She combines investigative reporting, crystalline science writing, and riveting narrative. The result is a book that leaves as indelible an impression as Henrietta's cells.

— From Rebecca Skloot Press Release. More from the press release below.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks circa 1945–1950

Who was
Henrietta Lacks?
Born in 1920 in Clover, Virginia, Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors. She was married to David Lacks in 1941 and moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1943. She had 5 children.

In 1951, she developed a strangely aggressive cancer, and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a tissue sample without her knowledge. She died from the cancer on October 4, 1951 without knowing that her cells would become immortal — the first to grow and survive indefinitely in culture.

Find out more about Henrietta Lacks:

Henrietta's Legacy - HeLa cells, as they are called, were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They have aided in the development of in-vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping, and have helped us to better understand the workings of cancer and innumerable viruses. Even today, HeLa is the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide, bought and sold by the billions. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons — more than a hundred Empire State Buildings.

Find out more about HeLa cells:

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