Many books have clever strap-lines, usually claiming their contents will either change your life or be the best thing you will read this year.
Skloot’s story-telling is divine, her descriptive prose transports you back in time to the tobacco fields of Clover, Virginia, and she shows a real understanding of both the human and science sides of the tale. Similarly, she describes Henrietta being physically strapped to the bed to stop her falling to the floor during convulsions of pain in a way that is honest and without sensationalism. While the graphic scenes make for uncomfortable reading, the most harrowing parts of the book are the reminders of how black people were treated in the all- too recent past. In 1950’s America, most hospitals were only for whites and would refuse to treat black patients.
A researcher at the Hopkins hospital where Henrietta was treated used blood samples of local, poor and predominately black children in 1969 without their consent. Equally, the treatment of Henrietta’s daughter and others at the Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane was horrific. Over in Tuskegee, black scientists were using cells from a black woman to successfully test the effectiveness of the first polio vaccine. Indeed, many of the scientists involved ended up winning Nobel Peace prizes while Henrietta’s family remained oblivious. It clearly became more than just a book to the author and her determination to discover and share the truth of this extraordinary story is etched into each page. The result is part science and part history lesson, documenting harrowing treatments and shocking racism, yet celebrating the tremendous legacy of one woman’s contribution to a crucial scientific breakthrough. It is hard to compare The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to other books as I have not read anything quite like it. More importantly, she successfully tells a truly remarkable tale; one that should be shared as widely as possible to gain the recognition it deserves. This article forms part of our 2011 editorial campaign in support of the UN International Year for People of African Descent.
About James CorkeJames is currently studying for a Certificate of Higher Education in Journalism at Birkbeck, University of London. Allowing some back story, considering Henrietta was born in 1951, that is 70 years, not 80 years. Once scientists knew how many chromosomes people were supposed to have, they could tell when a person had too many or too few, which made it possible to diagnose genetic diseases. This book touched me deeply as a woman living with Turner syndrome, a researcher, and a research participant. As a woman living with Turner syndrome, I am reminded every day of physical realities of our bodies. As a research participant, I have felt the tension that exist between science and the emotional and physical investment research requires of participants.


The cancer cells harvested without consent from Henrietta Lacks, a tobacco farmer who lay dying in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, led to one of the most imporant medical breakthroughs in modern medicine. The Imperfectionists Brad Pitt’s production company snatched the film rights to Tom Rachman’s debut novel about the staff of an English-language newspaper in Rome.
The Passage Director Ridley Scott (Robin Hood) and screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) are set to adapt this unconventional vampire novel about the survivors of an apocalyptic plague.
As the onetime tobacco farmer lay dying of cervical cancer in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, doctors snipped a tissue sample from her tumor.
Often this blurb is exactly that: a marketing tool designed to grab your attention and pull you in on an over-inflated promise. The science is explained clearly and concisely throughout; leaving you wishing Skloot was around during your time in the classroom.
Those that did, kept black and white patients segregated, with white-only water fountains and separate freezers in the morgue for black people.
Patients were used for painful brain x-ray experiments where the side effects lasted for months. Pharmaceutical companies have made a phenomenal amount of money from selling Henrietta’s cells, yet her family remain poor and unable to afford their own healthcare. Skloot turns the writing of it into a personal journey, ending up as one of the key players in a story you have to remind yourself isn’t fiction. He has built a solid portfolio of feature articles and commentaries largely focused on arts, culture and sport at People with Voices, and has also freelanced at the BBC’s Match of the Day magazine. Researchers world-wide would begin identifying chromosomal disorders, discovering that patients with Down Syndrome had an extra chromosome number 21, patients with Klinefelter syndrome had an extra sex chromosome, and those with Turner syndrome lacked all or part of one.
I was diagnosed at 15, I am now 41 and have been thoroughly studied by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Because of having Turner syndrome, I thought my heart might be pumping blood the wrong direction as the result of a defect in my aorta. Her story reminds me of the power of story to document, inform, and provide insight into experience. My wide-awakeness project is to be closer to presence, gratitude, compassion, and courage with each day. This raises several questions: how do we protect the genetic data of people who are studied in scientific research? Now, a Tennessee mother is objecting to author Rebecca Skloot’s telling of that story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, calling the bestselling book “pornographic” and seeking to have it banned from local schools. I had the flu and was so feverish that sweat was dripping off my nose and spattering the pages.
However, the cancerous cells doctors removed without her knowledge changed that, leading to one of the most significant and profitable scientific discoveries of the 20th century.


Gey was the researcher who was able to grow cells taken during a biopsy when Henrietta Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer. It is estimated that only about 1% of fetuses with only one X chromosome survive to term and that approximately 10% of all miscarriages are due to Turner syndrome. Several questions must be continually asked by the research community to honor research participants.
It is an historical record of cellular research as seen through the example of Henrietta Lacks’ cells.
None of the Lacks family ever financially benefited from Henrietta’s cells, though the research community saw fortunes made. How would you feel if your child was unable to receive life insurance because they were rated, due to the data that was collected about your genetic profile for Tay Sachs disease?
Currently, Pattillo is a practicing physician and Professor of Gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine. None of the Lacks family ever really found medical benefit either because they never had consistent insurance or resources to allow for medical care. And then the data was studied without your permission for other geneticly heritable diseases because of the lower cost of PCR and computing power? When Pattillo came to Morehouse in 1995, he organized a women’s health conference in honor of Lacks and invited members of the Lacks family to Atlanta to speak. In 1956, as a result of studying Henrietta Lacks’ cells, scientists were able identify 46 chromosomes in the human cell (prior to that, they thought there were 48). I would not know the reality of my physical condition until my experience at the National Institutes of Health at the age of 37.
Does the research participant truly understand they have the ability to leave the work at any time? As a woman living with Turner syndrome, I understand my story a bit better through the lens of her immortal life. Henrietta’s story resonated with me in that she too was young to be confronted with the limitations of the human body. As a result of my diagnosis, I was immediately treated with hormone replacement therapy and bone density medication.
Her story was different in that she had to endure unimaginable pain, and ultimately leave her family far too soon, but receiving a diagnosis for a chronic or fatal condition shapes how you see the world. Perhaps the research journey to identifying 46 chromosomes could have taken a different turn, and Turner could have taken a different path to identifying missing sex chromosomes, but the author of this book was suggesting a direct path between me and Henrietta.



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