Hooked on Books to Read: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors. Yet, her cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine: The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered the secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to significant advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than 20 years after her death when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family – past and present – is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battle over whether we control what we are made of. 

Over the decade it took to uncover the story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery and its human consequences.

We invite you to join the Hooked on Books book club to discuss this title on Thursday, September 15, at 11 am at the Osage Beach Library. Hooked on Books meets on the third Thursday of each month at 11 am. 

Both the ebook and audiobook versions are available from Missouri Library 2 Go and the Libby app for checkout. Physical copies of this title are also available for checkout at the Osage Beach Library.

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