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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca skloot.

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Full Book Summary

In 1951, an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks discovered what she called a “knot” on her cervix that turned out to be a particularly virulent form of cervical cancer. The head of gynecology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who was studying cervical cancer at the time, had asked the head of tissue culture, George Gey, to develop a culture of both healthy and cancerous surgical cell tissue. As a result, Gey asked for tissue samples from all cervical cancer patients, including Henrietta Lacks. At the time, no human cells had ever survived long in a laboratory, but Henrietta’s cancer cells, which Gey labeled as HeLa, survived. Meanwhile, Henrietta underwent treatment for her cervical cancer but succumbed to the disease, leaving behind her five children and husband. The Lacks family had no idea that doctors had taken her cells or that some of her cells were still alive. When the doctors at Hopkins requested an autopsy, Henrietta’s husband Day hesitated, but relented at his cousin’s insistence when a doctor suggested that the information gleaned from the autopsy could someday help his children. It wasn’t until 1973, when a family friend who was a researcher mentioned that he did work on HeLa cells, that the family learned a part of Henrietta was still alive.

Gey’s culture of HeLa cells not only survived, but allowed scientists to conduct unprecedented research on disease and genetics, as well as develop new medical treatments and vaccines. At no charge, Gey gave samples of HeLa cells to any researcher who requested them. Over time, for-profit cell culture labs sprung up, mass-producing HeLa cells and other cell lines in order to more efficiently supply research labs. However, because HeLa cells were so hearty and grew so quickly, they had the potential to contaminate other cell cultures. In 1973, geneticists realized that if they could identify distinct genetic markers within HeLa cells, they could more easily identify which cultures had been contaminated. To that end, a geneticist at Hopkins asked Henrietta’s children to have blood samples taken. The doctors didn’t make sure that the Lacks children understood why they needed to have blood drawn, and Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, believed that they were giving her a cancer screening.

Meanwhile, because HeLa cells and cell culturing promised so many advances in medicine, the media spread the story of the “immortal” cell culture and the mysterious woman behind the cells. Although a colleague of Gey’s published Henrietta’s real name in a small niche journal, most mainstream news outlets mistakenly gave her name as Helen Lane. In 1975, a journalist from Rolling Stone named Michael Rogers discovered Henrietta’s true name and contacted the Lacks family for an article about HeLa cells. The Lacks family was horrified to learn that other people were profiting from Henrietta’s cells. The experience reminded them of the terrible history of white doctors in the US conducting unethical research on black patients. Journalists continued to approach the family, including a BBC documentary team in 1996. Deborah hoped the documentary would bring Henrietta’s story to light and help Deborah learn more about her mother. Unfortunately, the documentary also attracted Sir Lord Cofield, a conman, to the family. Posing as a lawyer, Cofield claimed he could help the family sue Hopkins Hospital. When the family discovered his scam, he threatened legal action against the family, terrifying them. The stress from the ordeal gave Deborah a stroke.

In 1999, Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book, attempted to make contact with the Lacks family as she began her research. Because of the history of white journalists contacting the family for stories without offering transparency or proper compensation, in addition to the very recent ordeal with Cofield, the family initially didn’t want to speak with her. However, Skloot kept trying to make contact and spoke with several cousins in the Lacks family. Because she knew that Deborah wanted to know more about who her mother was as a person, Skloot left messages on Deborah’s phone sharing what she learned about Henrietta’s childhood. Finally, Sonny and Deborah Lacks agreed to speak with her. Deborah made Skloot promise to share all of her research and help her understand what happened to her mother. She also wanted to find out what happened to her sister, Elsie, who had been placed in a mental institution before Deborah was born. Skloot agreed, and Deborah regularly accompanied Skloot on her research trips.

In 2001, a researcher at Johns Hopkins invited the Lacks family to his lab. Accompanied by Skloot, Deborah and Deborah’s brother, Zakariyya, finally got to see where Hopkins kept their mother’s cells, and even watched HeLa cells divide under a microscope in real time. Later that week, Skloot and Deborah went to the hospital where Elsie had been institutionalized, and discovered that she’d been subjected to horrific abuse. Deborah’s blood pressure spiked from the stress of everything she had learned that weekend, and she began to behave erratically. Her cousin, Gary, performed a religious soul cleansing ceremony on her in which he lifted the burden of the cells from Deborah’s shoulders. To Skloot’s surprise, Gary proclaimed that from now on Skloot would help carry the burden for Deborah. Deborah decided that she wanted to learn more about science in order to better understand what happened to her mother, but didn’t have the money to pursue adult education. Instead, she focused her efforts on her grandchildren and her siblings’ grandchildren, and encouraged them to go to school. Skloot remained in contact with Deborah as she wrote the book and promised to share the final manuscript before it went to press. Sadly, Deborah died in 2009, right as Skloot made final touches on the book before publication.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

After countless recommendations, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a book I had been meaning to read almost since it was first published, but somehow I had never quite got around to it. There was always something more pressing to be read i.e. something fictional. Let’s face it, after a day of being bombarded with information in lectures the last thing I want is to sit down to a book where I run the risk of actually learning something. Oh no, I’ll take fictional escapism any day. But this July, with the horror of exams fading to a distant memory, and two more months of summer holiday looming large ahead of me, I decided to take the plunge.

I needn’t have worried. It reads like the best of fiction.

It tells the story of an African-American woman who died in 1951, aged just 31, of an aggressive cervical cancer. It also tells the story of her legacy: the HeLa cell line, taken from Henrietta’s tumour while she was still alive, cultured in a lab, and discovered to be immortal. After her death HeLa was mass-produced and sold to laboratories all over the world. It has been used in a vast and varied array of scientific research including research into cancer, the human genome, and the development of the polio vaccine, and it continues to be used to this day.

However, it is not the scientific advances which HeLa helped bring about which made this book such an engrossing read for me, but the ethical issues that the book raises. Henrietta does not give consent for the mass-production and sale of her cells, and her family don’t see a penny of the profits from HeLa. In fact, they do not even learn of its existence until years after Henrietta’s death, and, once they do, are deeply disturbed by the idea that their mother’s cells are being experimented on. Given the focus on informed consent and communication in modern medicine, I found the complete lack of communication with Henrietta and her family shocking. Understandably it breeds in them a mistrust of health professionals and authority more generally. Skloot’s sensitive portrayal of Henrietta’s surviving children and their struggle to understand their mother’s “immortality” is interwoven with stories of other individuals whose tissues have been bought and sold, with or without their consent, to ask the compelling question: who owns our cells once they are no longer part of us?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  is a book I wish I had read long ago, so that, when asked the inevitable “what have you been reading?” in medical school interviews I would have been able to answer with genuine passion and interest.

Review by Lizzie (Medicine)

I was intrigued by Rebecca Skloot’s book because it was so different from the other popular science books I had read before coming to Oxford. Encompassing science, ethics and biography, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is as much a fascinating story as it is a book on medical science.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. During treatment for her cancer, a tissue sample of her tumour was kept and used for scientific research without her consent, unknown to her family until 1975. These cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, which is still used for medical research today and has contributed to research into cancer, cosmetic testing, and the development of the polio vaccine.

The book follows the author’s journey of discovery as she finds out more about the cell line, the impact that the commercialisation of Henrietta’s cells has had on her surviving family and most importantly about Henrietta Lacks herself. This really made me consider the people throughout history without whom scientific advances would not have been possible and whether they consented to it or were even aware of it.

Issues around consent, privacy and ownership were brought forward in relation to how laws have changed, the thoughts and feelings of the Lacks family and the discussion of similar cases of the commercialisation of human tissue. Should something that has been a part of us – a cell, tissue or organ – belong to us once it is removed from our body?

I think one of the most important aspects of this book is that it surpasses just a list of medical facts and instead introduces us to the people affected by science. Although the book discusses the impact HeLa cells have had on medicine, Henrietta’s cancer and how HeLa cells achieve their immortality, what I really learnt from this book is that so many decisions that doctors make have ethical implications.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot ISBN-10: 0330533444 ISBN-13: 9780330533447  

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks makes you smarter and more compassionate by revealing the previously unknown story of a woman with extraordinary cells that still live today and have contributed to dozens of medical breakthroughs.

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Audio Summary

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If you were to walk into any biomedical laboratory right now, you would come across HeLa cells. They are one of the most important tools in modern medicine. They helped with everything from finding a cure for polio to discovering AIDs and cancer treatments.

These miracle cells have been around since the ‘50s, but most researchers don’t know their origin. 

Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five young children who died of cancer

When they took her cells for biopsy scientists found something amazing. Henrietta’s cells reproduced at an incredible rate. Today, long after her death, scientists across the world still grow her cells.

They did all of this without her permission or the knowledge of her family. Journalist Rebecca Skloot gets to the bottom of the story in her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks . 

Here are the 3 of the most fascinating lessons I’ve discovered:

Let’s hop on the Magic School Bus and jump back in time and into the life and cells of Henrietta Lacks!

If you want to save this summary for later, download the free PDF and read it whenever you want.

Lesson 1: Henrietta died tragically of cancer when she was young, but her cells still live on today.

Henrietta was a poor black farmer who was born in Virginia in 1920. She married young and soon was a mother of five young children. She was 30 when she walked into the coloreds-only exam room at John’s Hopkins complaining of a lump on her cervix. 

Doctors biopsied the lump, and a while later, the diagnosis came back as stage I cervical cancer. So she started receiving treatment, which at the time involved hours of excruciating exposure to radium. They left her badly burned and were sadly ineffective. She died later that year. 

It was at this time that scientists were looking for ways to keep human cells alive outside the body to research diseases. George Gey discovered the roller-tube culturing technique that involved a rotating cylinder that kept the cells in motion. 

When they put Henrietta’s cancer cells, or “HeLa,” in the roller-tube, they were amazed when it actually worked. Not only were they still alive, but they were doubling every 24 hours, faster than the human body. 

The aggressive nature of the cancer cells enabled them to thrive and survive outside a body . Soon, Gey shared the news of his “immortal human cells,” making them an instant celebrity.

Lesson 2: Though her cells were known around the world, most people knew nothing about Henrietta or her family, until recently.

Though her cells were known and produced around the world, Henrietta and her family were largely forgotten. After her death, her family struggled to make ends meet. Her husband Day had to work two jobs, and her oldest son had to leave school to raise his younger siblings. 

The children never knew what happened to their mother, as their father wouldn’t talk about it. Many years later, her daughter got the story from the doctors who were on her case. Decades later, the family was finally able to learn about Henrietta’s condition and the contribution she had made to the field of medicine without even knowing.

When writing the book, the author reached out to her family, but they were very reluctant to talk to her. Though she was finally able to talk to some of the family, getting information uphill battle because they didn’t trust her to tell the story.

She learned they had a general mistrust in medicine because of the medical community’s past exploitation of black Americans. 

One example of this was the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 1930s, where scientists allowed uneducated poor black men to suffer from syphilis and go untreated so they could study the disease. 

Even though the history of the exploitation of black people by scientists is documented, there were also many fictional stories that circulated among black Americans. Slave owners would tell stories of “night doctors” that kidnap black people for experiments in an effort to keep them from running away.

Lesson 3: Henrietta’s cells have raised ethical questions regarding cell donation in the world today.

Though Henrietta had rare, aggressive cells that made lab research possible, the same thing can and has happened to others. 

One case was a man who had rare leukemia and his cells were similarly taken and marketed without his knowledge. When the man found out, he sued the doctor for profiting off of his cells. But ultimately, the doctor won and continued to market his cells. 

Another man who had a special antibody for hepatitis B was actually informed by his doctor of the financial potential he had. Together with researchers, he helped cure hepatitis B. 

But the difference here is that Henrietta never even had the chance to claim property rights of her cells, because of her death. 

The practice of isolating and marketing a patient’s cells without their permission is still not illegal. There are more than 300 million tissue samples stored in the US. 

Doctors require consent to obtain samples. However, they don’t have to obtain further consent to use these tissues for research. 

Some believe that the current laws are enough. But many argue the patient has a right to know exactly what their cells will be used for. The future is uncertain, though many committees are now working to provide oversight in tissue sampling.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Review

Wow, what a crazy story! The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks has me excited about the science, but also disappointed in the way she was treated. There is a lot of potential to do good in the world if healthcare providers will just be honest with people about how they use their tissue samples!

Who would I recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary to?

The 54-year-old with an interest in history that likes learning about new historical facts that were covered up at the time they happened, the 31-year-old who is in medical school, and anyone that wants to know who they can thank for many advances in modern medicine.

Last Updated on August 31, 2022

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary

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Science writer Rebecca Skloot has always been obsessed with Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancer cells were harvested and used to create an immortal cell line for scientific experimentation . Because there isn't much information about Henrietta and her family, Skloot wants to tell their story. But she doesn't realize how much backstory and emotional baggage exists until she starts contacting the family and people connected with them.

It turns out that the Lacks family is very hostile to the idea of speaking to yet another reporter about their wife and mother's famous cells. Skloot quickly learns that the Lacks family has been badly treated by both media and the scientific community, and that she'll have to earn their trust before they'll allow her to tell their story.

Thirty year-Henrietta Lacks sought help in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for what she called a "knot" on her cervix. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated with radium and x-ray therapy.

In the process, some of the tissue was removed from her tumor and sent down to George Gey's lab at Hopkins to be cultured, or grown, in test tubes. Gey was the head of the tissue culture department at Hopkins and he'd been trying for years to get cells to divide continuously and infinitely in the lab so that the scientific community could have an inexhaustible supply of human cells to experiment on.

Neither Henrietta nor any of her family members knew about the tissue sample—and neither Gey nor Hopkins ever informed them. They didn't inform them even after the cells began to grow amazingly fast and Gey and the rest of the scientific world realized they'd just made a gigantic breakthrough in medical technology.

Maybe it wouldn't have meant anything to the Lacks family, who were poor, uneducated and extremely wary of the medical community. They had to focus on Henrietta, whose cancer cells spread as rapidly through her body as they did in the lab. She had rounds of radiation and x-ray therapy, but Henrietta didn't survive her disease. She died at the age of 31, leaving behind a husband and five young children.

Her husband, David ("Day") Lacks allowed a cousin and his wife to move into their house to take care of the children. But both Ethel and Galen were abusive to the children, and they all suffered horrendously at the hands of their relatives. Deborah and Joe suffered the most: Joe was beaten and isolated from the rest of the family, while Deborah was sexually molested by Galen.

When oldest brother Lawrence moved in with his girlfriend Bobbette, she insisted that they take in his younger siblings. But the damage was done. Joe grew up to be violent and unstable, and spent years in prison for murdering a guy who had threatened him. Deborah still had to fight off Galen and ultimately found herself in an abusive marriage at a young age.

During her teenage years, Deborah learned about the existence of an older sister, Elsie, who was institutionalized and died at Crownsville Hospital for the N**** Insane. Elsie suffered from congenital syphilis and couldn't hear or speak. She also suffered from epilepsy. Deborah knew very little about her mother and sister and had a lot of anxiety about this.

Deborah and the rest of the Lacks siblings learned about Henrietta's cells (called HeLa cells) quite by accident when a researcher from the National Cancer Institute was visiting a friend of Bobbette. He asked her last name and excitedly asked her if she was related to Henrietta Lacks. He told her about HeLa and Bobbette ran to tell the family that part of Henrietta was still alive. Pretty soon, researchers from Johns Hopkins were calling the family to get permission to draw their blood. Apparently, HeLa cells were so prolific that they had begun contaminating other cell lines all over the world. Now they had to be contained. In order to do this, scientists needed to find genetic markers in HeLa cells that would help them definitively identify the cell so they could keep other cell lines separate.

The Lacks family had no understanding of what HeLa cells were, where they came from, or what it meant when doctors and scientists say that Henrietta's cells are "immortal.' And the scientific community wasn't doing anything to rectify that. Mostly, they were trying to cover their butts, as HeLa had since become a massive for-profit industry—without the family's knowledge and without any financial benefit to the family.

This was particularly bad for the Lackses on two levels: first, they thought that Henrietta was still alive somehow and suffering in all these labs. Then they felt exploited, since others were profiting from their mother's cells while they lived in poverty and couldn't even afford to see a doctor.

Skloot works with Deborah to uncover the story of Henrietta's life, death, and transformation into immortal cells. She also promises to help her find out the truth about Elsie and her fate. They travel to Crownsville and find out some very disturbing things about Elsie's treatment there. Deborah suffers from the knowledge that her sister died alone and abused, but still feels she's better off knowing.

In the process of investigating and Henrietta's life, Skloot also tells the story of unethical scientific experimentation on human subjects and how the law struggled to keep up with such atrocities. She touches on the Tuskegee syphilis studies (and their relationship to the story of HeLa cells), Chester Southam's infamous cancer studies and the more anecdotal stories of "night doctors" who allegedly snatched black men and women off the streets of Baltimore in order to experiment on them. Even though she's a science reporter who's generally enthusiastic about scientific advances, Skloot paints a picture of the medical and scientific communities as corrupted by racism, exploitation, and the objectification of their patients and research subjects.

Ultimately, Skloot and other sympathetic doctors and researchers are able to answer the Lacks family's questions about Henrietta and her contributions to science over the last six decades. Although she can't force the scientific community to make reparations to the Lacks family, Skloot creates a foundation to help the family financially. But she also does something much more: she ensures that the rest of the world gets to hear the incredible story of the young mother, a descendant of slaves, whose suffering changed the course of medical research and made life healthier for the rest of us.

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The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Popular books summaries

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Rebecca Skloot

Journalist, teacher, & author.

summary of the immortal life of henrietta lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks named by more than 60 critics as one of the best books of 2010.

About the Book

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this  New York Times  bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.


Winner of several awards, including the 2010  Chicago Tribune  Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Excellence in Science Writing, the 2011 Audie Award for Best Non-Fiction Audiobook, and a Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award,  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  was featured on over 60 critics’ best of the year lists. For more reviews, praise, and media coverage of  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , please  visit the book’s press page . Also explore the resources found throughout this site for book groups, classrooms, and more.  And  click here  to read excerpts of the book.

Selected Press Videos and Radio

Rebecca Skloot talks with Stephen Colbert about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , irony insurance, and little-known Centipede Cells.

summary of the immortal life of henrietta lacks

Rebecca Skloot and members of the Lacks family talk with  CBS Sunday Morning  about Henrietta Lacks.

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Selected Print Press

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The Henrietta Lacks Foundation strives to provide financial assistance to individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent. LEARN MORE


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  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Full Book Summary

    In 1951, an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks discovered what she called a “knot” on her cervix that turned out to be a particularly virulent

  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    It tells the story of an African-American woman who died in 1951, aged just 31, of an aggressive cervical cancer. It also tells the story of her legacy: the

  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary

    1-Sentence-Summary: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks makes you smarter and more compassionate by revealing the previously unknown story

  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary

    Science writer Rebecca Skloot has always been obsessed with Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancer cells were harvested and used to create an

  5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Plot Summary

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary ... A journalist named Rebecca Skloot recounts learning about an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who

  6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary and Study Guide

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a non-fiction book that tells the story of Lacks and her HeLa cells, or the immortal cell line that

  7. The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks Summary and Review

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a poor tobacco farmer who died from cervical cancer, and her cell strand, HeLa, which scientists

  8. Summary of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by ...

    How one woman's DNA has lived forever. Written by science author Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (2011) investigates the intersection

  9. Summary of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


  10. About the Book

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing;