Skloot, Rebecca | The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  • First edition, first printing. A superb copy, signed and dated “3/29/10” by the author on the half title.

    In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American woman, died of ovarian cancer at Johns Hopkins. Unbeknownst to herself or her family, doctors used her biopsy to culture a line of cells that revolutionised medicine. Previously, no human cell culture had survived for more than a few days in the laboratory, seriously limiting their usefulness to research. Lacks’s cultures, however, survived for weeks, then months, and eventually decades, becoming essentially immortal. Dubbed “HeLa”, they are now mass produced and have been used to study almost every major medical question of the last seventy years. HeLa cells have been key to the development of vaccines, including the Salk polio vaccine; to identifying and treating AIDS and other emerging diseases; to our understanding of cell biology, genetics, and ageing; and in the development of medications for a range of illnesses.

    But this scientific success has a darker side. There are serious concerns about how Lacks’s race affected her medical care and the treatment of her family by the scientific community. Neither Lacks nor any of her relatives provided informed consent for her cells to be retained and studied, much less for them to become a multi-million dollar industry over which they have no control. And her descendants fear the privacy implications of their genome being made public.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks approaches the HeLa cells from this perspective, and is based on nearly a decade of personal interviews and archival research. Skloot focuses in particular on Lacks’s daughter, Deborah, who spent years fighting for access to the full story of her mother’s cells and to ensuring that her life and legacy would be honoured. The book also situates Lacks within the wider context of racism in medicine, and how Black women’s bodies have frequently been co-opted for the benefit of white doctors and patients. Now considered a key work of popular science writing, it spent 75 weeks on the New York Times best seller list and received numerous awards, including the Wellcome Trust Book Prize and the National Academies Best Book of the Year Award.

  • New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

    Octavo. Original red boards, titles to spine gilt. With the dust jacket. Illustrated title and chapter titles, 8 pages of illustrations from photographs. A fine copy in the jacket.