What Professors Are Saying About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Heartbreaking and powerful, unsettling yet compelling, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a richly textured story of the hidden costs of scientific progress. Deftly weaving together history, journalism and biography, Rebecca Skloot’s sensitive account tells of the enduring, deeply personal sacrifice of this African American woman and her family and, at long last, restores a human face to the cell line that propelled 20th century biomedicine. A stunning illustration of how race, gender and disease intersect to produce a unique form of social vulnerability, this is a poignant, necessary and brilliant book.”
ALONDRA NELSON, associate professor of sociology, Columbia University;
editor of Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life

“Every scientist who conducts research using human cells should read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s authoritative and elegantly crafted history of the use of human cells in modern medical research. It is appealing in many dimensions: relevant scientific information (does your lab work with HeLa cells? the details of how worldwide contamination of cell lines by HeLa was exposed may make you run to test the authenticity of your cell lines); insightful illumination of the balance between the responsibilities of individuals to contribute to society, and of society to protect individuals from harm and exploitation; and captivating personal drama. This book will likely become a staple of ethics programs associated with training biomedical researchers at all stages of their careers, as it provides a meticulously-researched factual basis for raising critical philosophical issues associated with confluence of science, business, and humanity.”
LINDA GRIFFITH, professor of biological engineering, MIT

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an ideal book for classroom discussions in bioethics, history of science, and journalism. Author Rebecca Skloot does an exceptional job of raising critical issues that should encourage both scholars and students to reevaluate the research decision making process, the way research subjects are treated, and the balance of power in this country as determined by race, economics, and even education. An incredibly readable and smart text that should be a part of countless university discussions.
DEBORAH BLUM, Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism, University of
Wisconsin-Madison; author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and The Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

No student or biomedical scientist should be permitted to broach the barrier of a cell culture hood without reading Rebecca Skloot’s, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [which] illustrates the need for responsible mentoring of scientific trainees and demonstrates the importance of clear and compassionate communication skills. When a medical student can’t understand why an African American patient vehemently refuses to enroll in a clinical trial, they need only visit some of Skloot’s accounts of Lacks Town and other black communities and read about the “colored-only” clinics of major medical schools to see how the profession fostered mistrust even in recent history. Skloot’s book is so much more than a medical history text … What is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks really about? Science, African American culture and religion, intellectual property of human tissues, Southern history, medical ethics, civil rights, the overselling of medical advances? The difficulty in defining the book is also what makes so appealing to academics in both the arts and sciences. The book’s broad scope would make it ideal for an institution-wide freshman year reading program but it is versatile enough for incorporation in special topics coursework for medical and graduate training or health disparities courses in public health programs … The abundance of moving passages in this book is enough to make even the most stoic scientist to take pause. Skloot is a master of the written word who skillfully weaves the cultures of reason and tradition, from the laboratories of Johns Hopkins to the churches of Clover. This is a work of science and the heart.
—David Kroll, Professor and Chair, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, North Carolina Central University, and science blogger at Terra Sigillata

“This remarkable story of how the cervical cells of the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, enabled subsequent discoveries from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization is extraordinary in itself; the added portrayal of Lacks’s full life makes the story come alive with her humanity and the palpable relationship between race, science, and exploitation.
PAULA J. GIDDINGS, Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor, Afro-American Studies, Smith College; author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions

I thought I knew enough about HeLa cells and their origins, but The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shattered that impression. I’ve worked with these cells all my career and have always appreciated them, and the fact that Henrietta gave science something fabulous, but I never knew how the whole affair affected the Lacks family. Rebecca Skloot vividly portrays what they went through, what HeLa has meant to science, how unscrupulous people always want to take advantage of others, and the good and bad about scientific research. In the end, I keep coming back to the same question: if we had informed consent laws back then, would Henrietta have said no? If so, it would have been a tremendous loss for science and medicine. This is an important contribution, which I hope all scientists and non-scientists will read.
VINCENT RACANIELLO, professor of microbiology & immunology, Columbia University; coauthor of Principles of Virology

“Almost fifteen years ago, through the Morehouse School of Medicine’s HeLa Women’s Health Conference, I began an effort to raise consciousness about the African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who gave rise to the immortal HeLa cells. Rebecca Skloot has won the trust of the Lacks family and has told a passionate story of the agony the family has suffered, as well as their hope that new bioethical standards will evolve from their experience. Science, racism, classism, sexism will be viewed through a more knowledgeable prism as this story is illuminated. Scholars, students, and the world will continue to be served by unveiling new truths made possible by this heroine of society.”
ROLAND A. PATTILLO, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Morehouse School of Medicine

Named by more than 60 critics as one of the best books of 2010

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The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent.