Reviews for Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Booklist Reviews 2009 December #1
*Starred Review* The "first immortal human cells," code-named HeLa, have flourished by the trillions in labs all around the world for more than five decades, making possible the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, and many more crucial discoveries. But where did the HeLa cells come from? Science journalist Skloot spent 10 years arduously researching the complex, tragic, and profoundly revealing story of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American mother of five who came to Johns Hopkins with cervical cancer in 1951, and from whom tumor samples were taken without her knowledge or that of her family. Henrietta died a cruel death and was all but forgotten, while her miraculous cells live on, "growing with mythological intensity." Skloot travels to tiny Clover, Virginia; learns that Henrietta's family tree embraces black and white branches; becomes close to Henrietta's daughter, Deborah; and discovers that although the HeLa cells have improved countless lives, they have also engendered a legacy of pain, a litany of injustices, and a constellation of mysteries. Writing with a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2011 March
This months' paperback releases

This month’s best paperback releases for reading groups feature notable authors and bestsellers.


In his fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell focuses his prodigious narrative powers on Japan in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A small Dutch trading settlement on an island in Nagasaki Harbor is where readers first meet Jacob, a representative of the Dutch East Indies Company. Jacob hopes to make his fortune and impress his fiancée back home, but instead he falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife. Theirs is a tenuous relationship, as Jacob isn’t allowed to visit the mainland where Orito lives. The pair encounter greater obstacles when Jacob is treated unjustly at work, and Orito’s conniving stepmother sends her away to a sinister nunnery. Their stories provide the foundation for Mitchell’s most ambitious work to date. He populates his tale with a cast of memorable characters that includes Uzaemon, an old flame of Orito’s, and various seamen, slaves and government officials. Author of the critically acclaimed Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, Mitchell, as always, pushes boundaries to create an epic and richly rewarding reading experience.


Taking a swing at America’s health-care system, Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, So Much for That, is a humorous and insightful examination of the patient-caregiver relationship. After selling his business for a million dollars, Shep Knacker plans to retire and travel the world with his wife, Glynis. But when she’s diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer, Shep finds himself serving as live-in nurse. Glynis makes for a terrible patient, but Shep endures her demands with the support of his best friend, Jackson, whose teenage daughter is also terminally ill. The two patients strike up an odd friendship as the men in their lives struggle to maintain some sort of status quo. Shep’s retirement fund dwindles quickly as he pays for chemotherapy and hospital stays, and Jackson is basically broke. Shriver depicts their plight in lively prose that’s meticulously crafted. She writes with delicacy and a unique understanding of the ways in which illness can transform lives and relationships. This is a funny, angry, compassionate novel that’s sure to resonate with readers.


In this vivid mix of science and biography, Rebecca Skloot tells the incredible true story of Henrietta Lacks, a victim of cervical cancer whose cells made possible some of medicine’s biggest discoveries. Lacks, a mother of five, came from a poor African-American family. When she died in 1951, doctors took samples of her tissues without having secured her consent. Her cells endured in the lab, allowing researchers to formulate a vaccine for polio and treatments for AIDS. Henrietta’s husband and children had no knowledge of her invaluable contribution until many years later. Skloot becomes involved with various surviving family members, who had passed the intervening years in poverty and bad health, helping them discover the truth about Henrietta. This poignant story about the invasiveness of medicine is also a deeply intimate look at one family’s efforts to claim its legacy. 

Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2010 January #1
A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine--all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre-civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.Tie-in with multicity author lecture schedule. Agent: Simon Lipskar/Writers House Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 November #1
Doctors retrieved cells from Henrietta Lacks, the descendants of freed slaves, and used them to create the first immortal human cell line grown in culture-with important consequences for cancer research, in vitro developments, gene mapping, and more. But they never told her or her family. A real detective story from science writer Skloot. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 December #1

This distinctive work skillfully puts a human face on the bioethical questions surrounding the HeLa cell line. Henrietta Lacks, an African American mother of five, was undergoing treatment for cancer at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 when tissue samples were removed without her knowledge or permission and used to create HeLa, the first "immortal" cell line. HeLa has been sold around the world and used in countless medical research applications, including the development of the polio vaccine. Science writer Skloot, who worked on this book for ten years, entwines Lacks's biography, the development of the HeLa cell line, and her own story of building a relationship with Lacks's children. Full of dialog and vivid detail, this reads like a novel, but the science behind the story is also deftly handled. VERDICT While there are other titles on this controversy (e.g., Michael Gold's A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy--and the Medical Scandal It Caused), this is the most compelling account for general readers, especially those interested in questions of medical research ethics. Highly recommended. [See Skloot's essay, p. 126; Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/09.]--Carla Lee, Univ. of Virginia Lib., Charlottesville

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2009 October #1

Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about "faith, science, journalism, and grace." It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women--Skloot and Deborah Lacks--sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line--known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot's portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people. (Feb.)

[Page 40]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.