The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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What happens in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

Journalist Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer after the birth of her fifth child. Without her knowledge or consent, her doctors harvested her cells and used them to create HeLa, an immortal line of cells that led to many groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

  • Following Henrietta's death in 1951, her husband Day was left to care for the children. Their eldest daughter, Elsie, was placed in an assisted living facility because of her mental handicaps. The eldest son, Lawrence, dropped out of school to support his family and was later drafted in the Vietnam War.
  • Henrietta's other three children, Sonny, Deborah, and Joe, were tortured by her cousin Ethel, who came to help Day with the kids. Sonny joined the Air Force but later fell into drugs. Joe killed a man and converted to Islam in prison, changing his name to Zakariyya. Deborah got pregnant at age sixteen and married her boyfriend Cheetah, only to divorce him soon after.
  • When Skloot began researching Henrietta Lacks, she discovered that the Lacks family didn't understand what Henrietta's cells had done. The doctors never told them, and Skloot had to explain the science. With Deborah's help, Skloot was able to piece together Henrietta's story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks became a national bestseller.

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Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class she took to fulfill a requirement for her high school diploma. Her professor didn't know anything about Henrietta Lacks, and neither did anyone else, Skloot learned. While studying toward an MFA in Nonfiction writing, Skloot decided to try writing the story of Henrietta Lacks. She jumps back in forth in time to tell this story, setting the book variously in the 1950s and the 2000s, with many digressions in between to explore how HeLa cells changed science forever.


Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the eighth of ten children in a poor African American family. In 1924, Henrietta's mother died. Her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, where he divvied up the children between relatives. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather Tommy Lacks in a small four-room cabin affectionately known as "home-house." Henrietta shared a bed with her cousin Day Lacks, with whom she pursued a sexual relationship. At the age of fourteen, Henrietta gave birth to her first child, Lawrence. Four years later, Henrietta had Lucile, nicknamed Elsie, an epileptic with severe mental handicaps. Henrietta and Day attempted to raise Elsie on their own without any form of medical assistance, later adding a third child, Sonny, to their family.


In 1951, Henrietta gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter, Deborah. Shortly after the birth, she felt a pain in her womb and suspected that something was wrong. Her friends and cousins advised her to talk to a doctor, but Henrietta had a deep distrust of the medical profession and hated going to Johns Hopkins, where, having little more than a sixth grade education, she couldn't really understand what was going on and felt as though her doctors were speaking another language. Henrietta didn't follow up on that pain until after the birth of her fifth child, Joe. After finding a lump near her cervix, she at last went to a doctor. Howard Jones, a gynecologist at Johns Hopkins, confirmed there was indeed a tumor the size of a grape on Henrietta's cervix. He recommended radium to shrink the tumor. Jones and his boss Richard TeLinde were interested in developing new treatments for cancer, so they took samples of both Henrietta's healthy and cancerous cells—without bothering to get consent, because, back then, doctors weren't required to get consent to harvest cells from patients. Without Henrietta's knowledge or approval, TeLinde enlisted the help of George Gey, a visionary scientist who wanted to create a line of immortal cells. Thus far, Gey had failed;...

(The entire section is 2,463 words.)