The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2010-02-02
  • Publisher: Crown

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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.

Skloot brilliantly weaves together the story of Henrietta Lacks--a woman whose cells have been unwittingly used for scientific research since the 1950s--with the birth of bioethics, and the dark history of experimentation on African Americans.

Author Biography

REBECCA SKLOOT is a science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; Prevention; Glamour; and others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radio Lab and PBS’s NOVA scienceNow, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including The Best Food Writing and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is a former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, and has taught nonfiction in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh, and science journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She blogs about science, life, and writing at Culture Dish, hosted by Seed magazine. This is her first book. For more information, visit her website at RebeccaSkloot.com.

Table of Contents

A Few Words About This Bookp. ix
Prologue: The Woman in the Photographp. 1
Deborah's Voicep. 9
The Exam...1951p. 13
Clover...1920- 1942p. 18
Diagnosis and Treatment...1951p. 27
The Birth of HeLa...1951p. 34
"Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside"...1951p. 42
"Lady's on the Phone"...1999p. 49
The Death and Life of Cell Culture...1951p. 56
"A Miserable Specimen"...1951p. 63
Turner Station...1999p. 67
The Other Side of the Tracks...1999p. 77
"The Devil of Pain Itself"...1951p. 83
The Storm...1951p. 89
The HeLa Factory...1951-1953p. 93
Helen Lane...1953-1954p. 105
"Too Young to Remember"...1951-1965p. 110
"Spending Eternity in the Same Place"...1999p. 118
Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable...1954-1966p. 127
"Strangest Hybrid"...1960-1966p. 137
"The Most Critical Time on This Earth Is Now"...1966-1973p. 144
The HeLa Bomb...1966p. 152
Night Doctors...2000p. 158
"The Fame She So Richly Deserves"...1970-1973p. 170
"It's Alive"...1973-1974p. 179
"Least They Can Do"...1975p. 191
"Who Told You You Could Sell My Spleen?"...1976-1988p. 199
Breach of Privacy...1980-1985p. 207
The Secret of Immortality...1984-1995p. 212
After London...1996-1999p. 218
A Village of Henriettas...2000p. 232
Zakariyya...2000p. 241
Hela, Goddess of Death...2000-2002p. 250
"All That's My Mother"...2001p. 259
The Hospital for the Negro Insane...2001p. 268
The Medical Records...2001p. 279
Soul Cleansing...2001p. 286
Heavenly Bodies...2001p. 294
"Nothing to Be Scared About"...2001p. 297
The Long Road to Clover...2009p. 305
Where They Are Nowp. 311
Afterwordp. 315
Acknowledgmentsp. 329
Notesp. 338
Indexp. 359
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


The Woman in the Photograph

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”
No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—hercells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.
Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.
There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.
I first learned about HeLa cells and the woman behind them in 1988, thirty-seven years after her death, when I was sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. He pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didn’t understand, like “MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations.”
I was a kid who’d failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. I’d transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Defler’s class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words likemitosisandkinase inhibitorsflying around. I was completely lost.
“Do we have to memorize everything on tho

Excerpted from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
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