What is the summary of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?

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hayleyjeanne eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot follows the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were cultured without her knowledge in 1951. These cells would quickly became the fastest-growing human cells in the history of science. In fact, her cells are still being grown and used today all over the world. They have helped to develop the polio vaccine and have even contributed to the development of certain chemotherapy drugs. Without Henrietta's cells, modern medicine would look much different. The problem is, until Skloot published her book, no one really knew who Henrietta Lacks was.

Skloot's fascination with Henrietta's cells (called HeLa cells) began when she was an undergraduate student in a biology class. Her professor explained that HeLa actually stood for Henrietta Lacks, but no one know much about her. Skloot then set out on a mission to explore Henrietta's life and find out who she was. 

The book details Henrietta's early life, her diagnosis with cancer, and her death, but it also follows the lives of her children and the way this story has affected them. Skloot becomes particularly close with Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, and together they journey to find out who Henrietta really was, apart from her cells (Deborah was a toddler when she died). In this way, Skloot becomes a character in the book.

Skloot's text also depicts the view of the scientific community at the time and gives background on the doctors and nurses who dealt with Henrietta and her cells at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. In a very deliberate decision to contrast the scientific community with the lower-class Lacks family, Skloot also portrays the role that race plays throughout the story and the hardships that the Lacks family have undergone because of the decisions of the scientific community. 

Skloot also made the deliberate decision to keep the vernacular of the Lacks family in tact throughout the novel. By keeping the voice of the Lacks family authentic throughout the text, Skloot is able to honor the memory of Henrietta.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a non-fiction book that describes Skloot's efforts to find out more about the history behind the HeLa cell line, and especially the woman, Henrietta Lacks, a patient who suffered and died from cervical cancer, whose cells were used to develop the cell line.

The book mixes autobiography with investigative reporting, with Skloot's investigation of the biology and narrative behind the cell line functions as part of her own coming of age as a journalist. In the book, she tells of how she befriends Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta, and other members of the Lacks family, and recounts their stories as well.  Much of the book contrasts the white, male medical establishment with the poor black community in which the Lacks family is embedded, showing how the disparities in knowledge, wealth, and power can led to exploitation. She especially focuses on how "informed consent" as a problem given the disparities in education between doctor and patient in this case. 

For summaries of individual chapters, see the full eNotes summary.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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