The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

HeLa cells had been used for decades in scientific research, but when Rebecca Skloot first heard of them in high school and wanted to know something about the woman for whom they were named, nobody could answer her questions. Eventually, needing to satisfy her own curiosity and convinced of the importance of this story, Skloot decided to investigate, determined to let the world know about the woman whose cells have helped so many. She has written a moving, thought-provoking book, which deals with ethics in science, racism, poverty, and the importance and strength of family ties. Skloot tells us the story of Henrietta Lacks and how her cells became “immortal” after her death.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920 and died 31 years later from aggressive cervical cancer. During her short life she bore five children and worked as a tobacco farmer. She ended her days in excruciating pain and was buried in an unmarked grave. We learn about Henrietta’s incredibly hard, impoverished life, through Skloot's research and her contact with the Lacks family. They are wary at first, but she eventually convinces them to talk to her, and Deborah, Mrs. Lacks’ daughter, joins Ms. Skloot in her mission to tell the world about her mother and the story behind the cells that are so familiar to scientists, but unheard of to everyone else.

Lacks was treated for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, using a method that today sounds like absolute torture. Doctors there took cells from her cervix without her knowledge or consent, and cultured them. Culturing cells was tried routinely, but the cells always died. This time was different; Henrietta’s cells lived, and not only that, reproduced incredibly. Her cell line became known as HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names.

Mrs. Lacks died later that year. Her family was not aware that part of her had been removed, that her cells had been cultured, and that they were being used in scientific research. They had no idea that her cells had been so beneficial to important medical and scientific advancements, or that people were profiting from marketing them, until more than 20 years later. They learned about what had happened to Henrietta when scientists asked for blood samples from surviving family members, in order to study the HeLa cells and try to understand why they had become “immortal” when others died.

Skloot does a good job explaining the science involved in the culturing of cells and why they are so incredibly important. She takes us on a journey of discovery that took her ten years to reveal and we are enthralled. But this is not only a book about science and research and history, it is also a story of love and family. Deborah opens up to Skloot because she also wants to know about what happened to her mother. It is her journey of discovery as well. Just a toddler when her mother died, she does not remember her and knows very little about her. She is avid to learn more. Through Skloot’s research and detective skills, Deborah eventually finds out more of her mother’s story. There are many tears along the way (for the reader as well) as we learn about Henrietta’s suffering (the autopsy report is unbelievably brutal to read) but also joy and relief to finally gain some longed-for knowledge about her mother’s life.

There is much to learn from this book. How many people even think about how research is conducted or where the material for the research comes from? How many would realize that so much has been accomplished based solely on this one line of cells? Without Henrietta Lacks’ cells to work with, our knowledge and understanding of many diseases (cancer, polio and AIDS to name a few) would be much further behind.

Some other things we learn are not so pleasant. Many passages are shocking. It becomes clear early on why the family is distrustful of doctors and scientists and wary of reporters. There were many instances in the early 20th century and even into the 1940s, of doctors and scientists using black patients for research and experiments, often allowing patients to die, in order to make observations, rather than treating them. Other “experiments” are cited that are enough to make one angry and ashamed that we as humans, are capable of such atrocities towards one another.

Rebecca Skloot has produced a compelling, intelligent book that gives us a hint of the wonder of science and the excitement of discovery. She raises questions about ethics in scientific and medical research that are still relevant. Henrietta Lacks’ family is left with the knowledge that her cells live on and continue to contribute to medical advancements to this day. A wonderful legacy, but many have profited from research using these cells, and her family still lives in poverty, unable to pay for health insurance or to take advantage of the treatments that her cells helped to develop. Skloot reminds us of the human story behind the science and that even advancements that benefit humanity may have personal consequences as well.


  1. Wonderful, thorough and thoughtful review as always, Jeanne. The ethical questions the book raises were important to me as we continue to rush headlong into accepting procedures that are made possible by science in an almost totally thoughtless way - whether it's human drug trials on inmate 'volunteers' or anonymous egg and sperm donations - and I'm nowhere near even getting to the ethics of cloning that we need to think about long and hard, something it amazes me we're not actually doing as a society. So for me - in addition to being a fascinating read on both the science and personal levels, I hope this book's success will point the way to precisely the issues I've raised and engender a bit more debate so we can take a bit of a fork in the road we seem to be on (or at least stop at the crossroads and not just continue to do things because the legislation permits us to).

  2. If all science writers could write for the general public as well as Rebecca Skloot does in this book, it would be so much easier to keep people informed. She made it an interesting story and easy to read and understand. Hope this book is a big success and gets people thinking about many issues.

  3. Terrific review and a very nice blog. Thank you for the comment on my blog as well. Keep reading! :-)