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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Vista Book Group: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Vista Book Group met in September to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. An award winning science writer, Ms. Skloot’s work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine and Discover. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is narrative science writing at its best; it both informs and engages the reader’s imagination and emotions in ways that typical science writing does not.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of a woman, a wife and mother, who visited the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1950 to be treated for an aggressive strain of cervical cancer. Within a year of her diagnosis, Henrietta Lacks, succumbed to the cancer and died at the young age of thirty one. However, a part of Henrietta Lacks lived on, because during the treatment of her cancer, a sample of her cervical tissue was taken without her knowledge or consent and was used to grow the first line of immortal human cells in culture, known as HeLa. These cells would be used in medical research that would lead to many groundbreaking scientific and medical discoveries, such as the development of the polio vaccine and would eventually lead to stricter guidelines regarding human research subjects and informed consent.

This book is also the story of the family, particularly the children, which Henrietta Lacks left behind after her death. Long after her death her family was unaware that Henrietta’s cells were being produced and used for medical research. Skloot chronicles the struggle of Henrietta’s surviving children to understand how their mother’s cells were being used. The relationship that forms between the author and Ms. Lacks’ family is a central part of the story and proves to be a particularly engaging part of the narrative.

The book flows really well even though it doesn’t necessarily follow a strict chronological timeline. It starts off with Henrietta’s diagnosis, then moves back in time to tell the story of how she grew up and came of age, and then moves forward following what happened with her family after her death. As readers learn about the medical and scientific progress that is happening with the HeLa cells, the author also recounts what is concurrently happening in the lives of Henrietta Lacks’ family.

Everyone in the book group enjoyed the book and acknowledged that it would definitely make a good re-read book because it is such a fascinating story and so full of interesting information that a reader could take something new away with each reading. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is made for a book group discussion, because it covers topics such as medical ethics, the history of race and medicine in America, and the interesting dynamics of Henrietta’s family and their relationship with the author, Rebecca Skloot, as she researches and writes the story of their mother’s life, death and her immortal cells. This is an incredibly well researched book; Ms. Skloot researched and wrote this book over a period of a decade. It also happens to be a fast paced and appealing read, so if you happen to be of the mind that history and science reading is all boring, give this book a chance to change your mind.

Some books that we came up with as possible read-a-likes include:

  • A Crack in the Edge of the World and The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity , and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. Simon Winchester is known for employing “dramatic tension with a celebratory and investigative tone conveyed in clear language to bridge the gap between the expert and the layperson” (Novelist Plus), much the same as Rebecca Skloot does in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
  • The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann. A good example of historical writing that has a compelling writing style in which the author ties in the story of his subject with his investigations.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. This Pulitzer Prize winning book chronicles the history of the “decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.” (Novelist Plus) Henrietta and her husband moved north from the tobacco farm in rural Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland so that he could work in the steel mills after the outbreak of World War II. This book is also incredibly well researched, for which the author spent quality time with her subjects while gathering oral history. Another history book that is not boring!
  • Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. Erik Larson is well known for creating compelling narrative nonfiction that blends history and suspense for a fast paced and interesting read.
  • The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves by Robert Kunzig. This book is an example of science writing that is clear and easy to understand, much like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The Restless Sea is an engaging book that takes a look at the drama of how the oceans were created and provides an understanding of the Earth’s seas.
  • The Vista Book Group meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month, in the Film and Sound Cafe of the Main Library, from 6-7:30 pm.


    Amazon Says: 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 wi more...
    Amazon Says: 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, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important 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. Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty 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 battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? 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, as well as its human consequences. less...
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    Amazon Says: In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long more...
    Amazon Says: In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves. With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic. less...
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    Amazon Says: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for more...
    Amazon Says: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon. After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, acclaimed New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve "the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century:" What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest for the Lost City of Z? In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humankind. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions helped inspire Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions around the globe, Fawcett embarked with his twenty-one-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization--which he dubbed “Z”--existed. Then he and his expedition vanished. Fawcett’s fate--and the tantalizing clues he left behind about “Z”--became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. For decades scientists and adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett’s party and the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes, or gone mad. As David Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett’s quest, and the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle’s “green hell.” His quest for the truth and his stunning discoveries about Fawcett’s fate and “Z” form the heart of this complex, enthralling narrative. less...
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    Amazon Says: The international bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa vividly brings to life the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that leveled a city sy more...
    Amazon Says: The international bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa vividly brings to life the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that leveled a city symbolic of America's relentless western expansion. Simon Winchester has also fashioned an enthralling and informative look at the tumultuous subterranean world that produces earthquakes, the planet's most sudden and destructive force. In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, San Francisco and a string of other towns were overcome by an earthquake registering 8.25 on the Richter scale, resulting from a rupture in the San Andreas fault. Lasting little more than a minute, the earthquake wrecked 490 blocks, toppled a total of 25,000 buildings, broke open gas mains, cut off electric power lines, and effectively destroyed the gold rush capital that had stood there for a half century. Winchester brings his inimitable storytelling abilities -- as well as his unique understanding of geology -- to this extraordinary event, exploring not only what happened in northern California in 1906 but what we have learned since about the geological underpinnings that caused the earthquake in the first place. A Crack in the Edge of the World is the definitive account of the San Francisco earthquake and a fascinating exploration of a legendary event that changed the way we look at the planet on which we live. less...
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    The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
    Amazon Says: Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.] 1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge more...
    Amazon Says: Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.] 1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose. It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story--a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray's offer was regularly--and mysteriously--refused. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor--that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane--and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary. less...
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    Chantal W. Says: The previous edition of this book was titled The Restless Sea which was published in 1999.
    Amazon Says: A vivid, up-to-date tour of the Earth's last frontier, a remote and mysterious realm that nonetheless lies close to the heart of even the most land-locked reader. The se more...
    Amazon Says: A vivid, up-to-date tour of the Earth's last frontier, a remote and mysterious realm that nonetheless lies close to the heart of even the most land-locked reader. The sea covers seven-tenths of the Earth, but we have mapped only a small percentage of it. The sea contains millions of species of animals and plants, but we have identified only a few thousand of them. The sea controls our planet's climate, but we do not really understand how. The sea is still the frontier, and yet it seems so familiar that we sometimes forget how little we know about it. Just as we are poised on the verge of exploiting the sea on an unprecedented scale—mining it, fertilizing it, fishing it out—this book reminds us of how much we have yet to learn. More than that, it chronicles the knowledge explosion that has transformed our view of the sea in just the past few decades, and made it a far more interesting and accessible place. From the Big Bang to that far-off future time, two billion years from now, when our planet will be a waterless rock; from the lush crowds of life at seafloor hot springs to the invisible, jewel-like plants that float at the sea surface; from the restless shifting of the tectonic plates to the majestic sweep of the ocean currents, Kunzig's clear and lyrical prose transports us to the ends of the Earth. Originally published in hardcover as The Restless Sea. "Robert Kunzig is a creator of what oceanographer Harry Hess once referred to as 'geopoetry.' He covers vast tracts of time and space and makes his subjects electrifying."—Richard Ellis, The Times [London] "The Restless Sea immediately surfaces at the top of the list of journalistic treatments of oceanography. . . .The book opened my eyes to numerous wonders."—Richard Strickland, American Scientist  "When you head for the coast this summer, leave that trashy beach novel at home. Instead, pack Robert Kunzig's book. Because just beyond your rental cottage lies the restless sea, where three-mile-tall mountain ranges criss-cross the ocean floor, and deep trenches harbor mysterious creatures. . . . The book is easy to read, and will bring you up to date on the startling discoveries oceanographers have made during the past few decades."—Phillip Manning, The News and Observer [Raleigh, North Carolina] ] "Anyone who loves the sea should read this book."—Sebastian Junger 8 pages of color, 20 black-and-white illustrations less...
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    Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
    Amazon Says: A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world’s “great hush” In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unl more...
    Amazon Says: A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world’s “great hush” In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime. With his superb narrative skills, Erik Larson guides these parallel narratives toward a relentlessly suspenseful meeting on the waters of the North Atlantic. Along the way, he tells of a sad and tragic love affair that was described on the front pages of newspapers around the world, a chief inspector who found himself strangely sympathetic to the killer and his lover, and a driven and compelling inventor who transformed the way we communicate. Thunderstruck presents a vibrant portrait of an era of séances, science, and fog, inhabited by inventors, magicians, and Scotland Yard detectives, all presided over by the amiable and fun-loving Edward VII as the world slid inevitably toward the first great war of the twentieth century. Gripping from the first page, and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form. less...
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    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - Official Trailer
    Chantal W. Says: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - Official Trailer
    YouTube Says: The book that's been on everyone's "Best of" lists, including Amazon's Best Book of 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, is intimate in feeling, aston...
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