The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the astonishing biography of a poor tobacco farmer whose cells, first grown in culture in 1951, are still ubiquitous in the laboratory world today. The author, Rebecca Skloot, dedicated nearly a decade to researching the science and, perhaps more interestingly, getting to know the Lacks family. Skloot is a science journalist whose name is familiar in the corridors of my own institution, the New York Academy of Sciences, because she did freelance work for us, writing about our scientific symposia. With this book, she presents an unforgettable story that reads like a novel.

Henrietta Lacks was a 29-year-old mother when doctors at Johns Hopkins diagnosed her with aggressive cervical cancer. At that time, Hopkins was the only hospital nearby that would admit and treat African American patients. Without her consent, as was commonly done in that time, doctors removed a sample of her cancerous tissue and gave it to a laboratory that had been trying for years to grow an immortalized human cell line. They named the cells HeLa, consistent with their practice of abbreviating the first and last names of the patient, and without informing her or her family put them in a dish.

Anyone who has come from a basic science laboratory knows where the story is going. Of course, the heartiness of HeLa cells in culture and their ability to be grown in suspension, easily freeze-thawed, and shipped provided the scientific community for the very first time with a consistent and reliable tool for experimentation that revolutionized the way we do research. HeLa cells have been used in so many groundbreaking studies that it would be hard to overstate their importance to science and medicine. The cells were used to launch the field of virology, to create the polio vaccine, to do gene mapping and cloning, and to study the effects of zero gravity in outer space and in a slew of other studies that add nearly 300 new publications each month to a library that now totals about 60,000.

By Singh with 3 comments


  • France says:

    I am not sure what the history of the Lack's family might have been had circumstances unfolded differently, but I appreciated the author telling the story without drawing conclusions. I appreciated the author's ability to relate the story without bias or opinion, she provides a vehicle for the reader to muse and ponder the what if's of this story.

  • Ahsan says:

    Its a great biography on Henrietta Lacks. The writer very intelligently & diligently described his whole life

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