From the book
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--her cells, 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 like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost.
"Do we have to memorize everything on those diagrams?" one student yelled.
Yes, Defler said, we had to memorize...
"I could not put the book down . . . The story of modern medicine and bioethics--and, indeed, race relations--is refracted beautifully, and movingly." - Entertainment Weekly
"Science writing is often just about 'the facts.' Skloot's book, her first, is far deeper, braver, and more wonderful." - New York Times Book Review
"A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment, as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led." - Washington Post
"Riveting...a tour-de-force debut." - Chicago Sun-Times
"A real-life detective story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks probes deeply into racial and ethical issues in medicine . . . The emotional impact of Skloot's tale is intensified by its skillfully orchestrated counterpoint between two worlds." - Nature
"A jaw-dropping true story . . . raises urgent questions about race and research for 'progress' . . . an inspiring tale for all ages." - Essence
"This extraordinary account shows us that miracle workers, believers, and con artists populate hospitals as well as churches, and that even a science writer may find herself playing a central role in someone else's mythology." - The New Yorker
"Has the epic scope of Greek drama, and a corresponding inability to be easily
explained away." - SF Weekly
"One of the great medical biographies of our time." - The Financial Times
"Like any good scientific research, this beautifully crafted and painstakingly researched book raises nearly as many questions as it answers . . . In a time when it's fashionable to demonize scientists, Skloot generously does not pin any sins to the lapels of the researchers. She just lets them be human . . . [and] challenges much of what we believe of ethics, tissue ownership, and humanity." - Science
"Indelible . . . The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism." --Laura Miller, Salon.com
"No dead woman has done more for the living . . . a fascinating, harrowing, necessary book." - Hilary Mantel, The Guardian (U.K.)
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does more than one book ought to be able to do." - Dallas Morning News
"Above all it is a human story of redemption for a family, torn by loss, and for a writer with a vision that would not let go." - Boston Globe
"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, author of Ida, A Sword Among Lions; Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor, Afro-American Studies, Smith College
"Skloot's engaging, suspenseful book is an incredibly welcome addition for non-science wonks." - Newsweek
"Extraordinary . . . If science has exploited Henrietta Lacks [Skloot] is determined not to. This biography ensures that she will never again be reduced to cells in a petri dish: she will always be Henrietta as well as HeLa." - The Telegraph (U.K.)
"Brings the Lacks family alive . . . gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality--this one through the discipline of good writing." - Baltimore Sun
"A work of both heart and mind, driven by the author's passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells." - Los Angeles Times
"In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life." - Mother Jones
"More than ten years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write . . . Skloot, a young science journalist and an indefatigable researcher, writes about Henrietta Lacks and her impact on modern medicine from almost every conceivable angle and manages to make all of them fascinating . . . a searching moral inquiry into greed and blinkered lives . . . packed with memorable characters." - Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Ten Book of 2010
"Rebecca Skloot did her job, and she did it expertly . . . A rive - THEROOT.COM