The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Skloot on ABC World News Tonight! Plus Lots of Review Love

A quick post as I run out the door for the teeveey studio: Set your TiVos and your DVRs, mark your calendars: Tonight I'll be on ABC World News talking about my new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  The segment will also feature members of Henrietta's family, and Vincent Racaniello with lots, and lots of HeLa cells.

ALSO:  The first reviews of The Immortal Life are starting to hit newspapers.  There's a terrific review on the front page of the Washington Post Outlook section today, and another great one in the St. Petersburg Times.  Update:  This great review just in from the Boston Globe too!

As the kids say:  wOOt! Stay tuned, later today, I'll be posting details of the many HeLa related events happening this week in New York:  At Columbia, McNally Jackson Bookstore, and more.

More like this

Are you in New York?  Anywhere near New York? If so ... mark your calendars and come join us for the PUBLIC BOOK LAUNCH EVENT we've all been waiting for (well, at least we here at Culture Dish have been waiting for it ... plus a few other folks):  In an evening emceed by Jad Abumrad of RADIOLAB, I'…
After ten long years, the serious countdown has begun for the publication of my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which will be on sale nationwide exactly SEVEN DAYS from today.  I've been posting about my impending book tour, and all the great coverage the book has been getting, on…
Yes, it's true, Culture Dish has found a new (and improved) home. After a long blogging hiatus while I finished writing my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (see below for details), I'm now packing up shop and moving here to ScienceBlogs (you can subscribe via RSS here, or get Culture…
Yes, it's true, Culture Dish has found a new (and improved) home. After a long blogging hiatus while I finished writing my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (see below for details), I'm now packing up shop and moving here to ScienceBlogs (you can subscribe via RSS here, or get Culture…

Came here immediately after reading the Boston Globe review, to be sure you knew about it. What wonderful things to read!

As a writer and editor whose work focuses upon Black health and wellness, I cannot wait to read this book. Thank you very much for writing it. I've told all my friends. Hope to see you when you're in Philly.

I think the book sounds interesting. However, I don't understand why it has to bring up race - is she the ONLY person whose tissue was put in this situation? How could anyone know that it would have been different if she was white? Also, why should her family get money? Has everyone whose tissue has offered medical/scientific advice or knowledge been compensated? No!! That would hamper a lot of future scientific research, wouldn't it?

Also, what if they asked her and she had said no????

Now everybody is all fired up about the white man taking advantage and the drug companies getting rich. I think the interesting part of the story is lost on angry people who see racism in everything. Too bad..

By Jessica Wright (not verified) on 01 Feb 2010 #permalink

As a scientist, I've read many a paper that have used HeLa cells. I saw a post on about the book and found that I'd never really thought about where the cells came from orignally-I shared the article with my fellow scientist friends on facebook and a friend came back, now I wonder where Jurkat cells came from (another widely used cell line in the study of Immunology). When working with a cell line it is easy to forget the cells came from a person.

By A scientitst (not verified) on 01 Feb 2010 #permalink

@A Scientist: Thanks for your comment -- I'm thrilled to hear that the story has sparked that kind of conversation.

@Jessica Wright: You should read the book -- the story is far more complicated than what you imagine, based on your comment. The Lacks family agrees with you that it's not a story about racism. Have a look.

If/when my review copy arrives I'll do my best to get it out to the New Zealand audience! Good luck with it all. I can't judge the book without having read it (!), but you've chosen a great storyâI'm itching to read itâand the reviews seem to be all going your way!

I had my pre-ordered copy of your book delivered to my Kindle. I happened to be up reading when it arrived. Thinking I'd just read a few pages before getting off to bed, I started reading about 1:10am. I have been up all night and just finished the final page.

I can't remember the last time a book has gripped my so completely that I literally could not stop reading it! While I expected to be tired this morning, I feel surprising exhilerated. Your words have brought Henrietta lacks to life for me, and I am so grateful.

I've been in the medical field most of my life. I've worked with HeLa cells, heard about them in biology class where the importance of doing research with a single cell line was explained, and worked with immunology, virology and oncology researchers who have so heavily relied on HeLa cells to make some of the most astounding and life changing discoveries known to mankind. HeLa cells now have a name, a face, and a person attached to them, thanks to you.

I am also a white mom with adopted children of black and mixed ethnicities. Your book is now among those I will read to my children as I teach them about their rich heritage. Thanks to the 2008 election, one barrier has been broken and a hero among young black chilcren was born. Thanks to your book, my children will know this young black heroine and the impact of her life and her contribution to their lives.

I love that Deborah knows (feels) her mother is present. I pray Miss Lacks is in a place where she can understand the monumental impact she has had on millions and millions of lives.

A previous commentor spoke against making this story about ethnicity. I hope her comment was driven simply by not understanding rather than by something else. This HAS to be a story about race, because of who Henrietta Lacks was and is. In life, she was next to nothing, relegated to segregated drinking fountains and seats at the back of the bus, because of the color of her skin and the caste into which she was born. Her immortal cells, though colorless even under the microscope, have been valuable to the world of medical science beyond our ability to estimate. Do we really have to wonder if Henrietta Lacks, while she was alive, would have been allowed to achieve similar personal successes? This irony cannot be understated.

And to further answer this commentor's question about compensation, those who donate their bodies or organs or tissue to science for the education of other medical professionals are usually not compensated, but those who supply their tissues for use in medical science or for specific medical purposes are often compensated (its as simple as selling a pint of your plasma at your local blood bank).

To the family of Henrietta lacks, thank you for sharing her with Ms. Skloot so she could bring your Henrietta to us. You deserve to share in the compensation that Henrietta should have been given. I pray your hearts swell with pride knowing that your Henrietta has saved millions of children from crippling polio, helped change millions of lives as cancer-fighting drugs were invented and perfected using her cell lines, and that millions more are enjoying healthy lives with the assistance of medications invented using her cells. We are all forever indebted to her.

Ms. Skloot, thank you for bring Henrietta Lacks to life.

For the haters: go to Wikipedia and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment where black men were used as human guinea pigs. That memory is only one example of the on-going abuse and cultural rape that is all too familiar to black folks. So, it is only natural that this case is seen in the context of race. Are there other "immortal cells" that have been used and exploited to this degree? This is such a miraculous event - there should be no shame in announcing to the world that Henrietta Lacks was black. Maybe black folks are not demons after all. Maybe black folks are saviors.

I recall reading about Mrs Lacks about 30+ years ago. Up to that time medical science was positive that black women did not need PAP smears as black women did not develop cervical cancer. She changed medical theory and treatment for all women.

By PATRICIA WILSON (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

"In life, she was next to nothing, relegated to segregated drinking fountains and seats at the back of the bus, because of the color of her skin and the caste into which she was born."

I differ with you. Just because she or others were black in the segregated South does not mean they were "next to nothing". Clearly segregation was not fair and blacks suffered detriments. Many though led solid, even prosperous lives especially in the post WWII era when the benefits of war-related jobs reached blacks and brought some wealth and position to many. I've not read the book, but I see no evidence in the reviews and reports that she and her husband were impoverished or downtrodden. Indeed the courage and resources to challenge segregation came in large part from Southern Blacks, MLK among them, who grew up in segregation. It does no one credit, least of Blacks, to see people like Henrietta Lacks one dimensionally as resourceless victims.

That said, the photo shows a remarkably solid, handsome couple who clearly had a sense of style.

Sherman: this isnt a debate forum, but clearly you misunderstood the intent of my comment. Most assuredly, Henrietta and "Day" Lacks were not "nothing" to their friends, family and cultural community. But they WERE treated as "nothing" (meaning insignificant, less than worthy) by those who imposed and enforced segregation.
No amount of money could purchase a black man or woman a seat on the main floor of a segregated movie theater, a drink from a "Whites Only" water fountain, or medical care at a hospital that refused to treat black americans.
Read the book. Maybe that will help you understand my comment.

I haven't read your book yet, just the reviews, but here's a suggestion for your next one: Mrs. Henri Matisse. While watching a documentary about Henri Mattise, mention was made about his first wife, who was a member of the French Underground, was captured and imprisoned by the Germans, and who escaped from that prison. Add to that that she was the driving force behind the early part of the famous painter's career, and I think you have a biography that will be fascinating. I want to read it, but no one's written it. Perhaps you will!

Please update your tour schedule -- would love to see you when you get to SF (CA) ... This is really exciting and I'm so looking forward to learning more about this amazing story.

Rebecca, I'm about halfway through the book. It's absolute torture for me to put it down. I'm so glad you wrote this, and can't wait for your next one. But I hope it doesn't take ten years. :-)

By Shannon Larkin (not verified) on 12 Feb 2010 #permalink

I am nearly finished with the book and really enjoyed it. Even as a veterinarian I sometimes encounter people who fear that i am "experimenting" or somehow otherwise exploiting their pets. This book has helped me to understand these fears better and will make me more sensitive to such fears.
I was of course touched by the Lacks family stories, but was also surprised to be touched by the picture of Mary Kubicek (my mother was also named Mary, and worked in a medical school lab in the early 50's, and looked like she could have been Mary Kubicek's sister). I also have a relative who is a retired geneticist who has worked with HeLa cells. I think a copy of the book and a donation to the foundation would be a wonderful present for him. It is rare for a book to touch me on so many levels, but this one did. Thanks.

Personally Know the story. Know the family. Posted on this
site last week. Live in Hopkins urban renewal area,under
eminent domain toward the creation of Hopkins Biotech Park.

A little disappointed that you have chosen to censure
comments. Speaks volumes concerning your openness to
free speech and holding Hopkins accountable for this
families' entrenched unaddressed poverty.

Sorry. You may make the money, may get the acclaim, but
you definitely missed the karmic mark.


By nia redmond (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Sorry, Nia, but no one is censoring comments here. They all go up. And have a look at The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which I started and am donating portions of the book's proceeds to - the descendants of Henrietta Lacks are the primary beneficiaries, and it will provide scholarship money for them to go to school, help with health care, etc. You can learn more about it at

Nia, I also write a blog here at the ScienceBlogs network and we have all been having issues with some comments from our readers not showing up. Also, if you include a URL in your comment, spam filters sometimes will hold it up from being posted until the author manually approves it.

And even though you personally know the story, I encourage you to read Rebecca's book at some point to understand just how committed she was to telling the story of Ms. Lacks and the entire family - and telling the story *with* the family, most importantly. She pulls no punches about who might be accountable and exposes every step of the history for all to see. She is also deeply devoted to being sure that Henrietta's descendants are recognized appropriately.

WoW... I was just at the Diversity Alliance for Science Event. It was really awesome to hear Skloot speak at the podium for a good 20 minutes. Skloot you will touch many different hearts in so many different way's. Thank you for staying committed on getting this book done. FYI-I have not read the book YET but, I sure will read this one.. And I don't even like to read..LOL.. And no I'am not even into Science.. But, maybe this will strike something in me.

By Jonathan Manue… (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink