Cover image of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," exposing an episode on the dark side of medical history

Henrietta Lacks was thirty-one years old when she entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore early in 1951. She was Catholic, the mother of five children, and African-American. Hopkins was one of the nation’s most prestigious medical schools—and the only hospital in the area that admitted Black patients. The doctors there biopsied a tumor on Lacks’ cervix and diagnosed cervical cancer. She underwent radiation treatment for several months but died of the disease on October 4, 1951. However, without her knowledge, the doctors had cultured cancerous cells removed from her cervix—and those cells gave birth to one of the most valuable cell lines ever discovered. Science journalist Rebecca Skloot exposes the dark side of medical history in her compelling account of Lacks’ story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

An “immortal” line of cancer cells

As Skloot explains, Hopkins then was home to some of the world’s leading researchers in fields such as cell culture and oncology. One of those researchers, biologist George Otto Gey, asked Henrietta’s physician for a sample of her diseased cervix. He harbored faint hopes that, unlike every other tissue sample anyone had ever tested, the cells he extracted would divide indefinitely. Gey hoped the cells would prove to be “immortal” and open up new vistas for medical research.

To his and everyone else’s astonishment, they did. And not only did those cells continuously divide from 1951 to the present, they proved to be so aggressive and so persistent that they contaminated every other cell culture they came in contact with—invalidating years of medical research that was conducted before the contamination was discovered. To this day, HeLa cells, named as a contraction of Henrietta’s name, constitute one of medicine’s most pervasive experimental tools.

This post was updated on October 23, 2023.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010) 393 pages ★★★★★

Painting of Henrietta Lacks, the star in this story of the dark side of medical history
“Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine” by Kadir Nelson, oil on linen, 2017. Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture. Image: Cell Science

The text on the cover telegraphs the essence of the story: “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.”

The dark side of medical history

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extraordinary on several levels: as a beautifully researched work of medical history, as a portrait of the profound impact of racism in America, and as a brutally honest first-person account of a writer’s challenging, decade-long struggle to write a serious book. As the publisher notes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was named one of the best books of the year it was published by The New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, O: The Oprah Magazine, NPR, the Financial Times, New York magazine, the Independent (UK), the Times (UK), Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and Toronto’s Globe and Mail. It’s that good.

Delving into the science behind the story

HeLa cells have figured into much of the most consequential medical research of the past seventy years. The most significant episodes included:

  • The first successful cloning of human cells
  • Use by Jonas Salk in testing the first polio vaccine in the 1950s
  • Ongoing research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances
  • Continuing research into viruses that infect humans, dogs, and cats
  • Development of vaccines for human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • Nobel Prize-winning cancer research linking HPV with cervical cancer
  • Use in studies of HIV, Zika, herpes, and mumps testing new vaccines and drugs

As the author notes, by 2009, “more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.”

Image of HeLa cells under the microscope
HeLa cells under the microscope. Image: British Society for Immunology

Plumbing the profound impact of racism

This book is engrossing in its exposure of the dark side of medical history. As Skloot amply demonstrates, it’s also scientifically significant. But for me what was most powerful about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the unfolding story of Henrietta’s life and of the lives of her many children and grandchildren. Skloot devoted a decade to befriending and later interviewing Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, Deborah’s brothers, and other influential members of the Lacks family in Virginia and Maryland.

Theirs is one of the most moving tales I’ve ever encountered of the profound impact of racism in our society. It’s far from the most dramatic; after all, the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-72) far more dramatically illustrates the sometimes horrific cost paid by African-Americans for the pervasive racism in our society. But Henrietta Lacks’ story brings the horror home for all that it lacks that drama. At Deborah Lacks’ insistence, Skloot reported every incident and every conversation precisely as it occurred, with no sugar-coating. The power of her reporting is irresistible.

About the author

Image of Rebecca Skloot, author of this book about the dark side of medical history
Rebecca Skloot in 2018. Image: Pitt Magazine – University of Pittsburgh

Rebecca Skloot (1972-) is an accomplished science journalist, but amazingly this is her only book to date. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for six years. However, Skloot has also authored more than 200 articles and essays. A film version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premiered on HBO on April 22, 2017 and starred Rose Byrne as Skloot, and Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’s daughter Deborah. According to her website, Skloot currently lives with her dog and cat in Oakland, California, where she is working on a new book about humans, animals, science, and ethics.

For a detailed obituary of the physician who worked closely with Rebecca Skloot on the writing of this novel, see the obituary, “Roland Pattillo Dies at 89; Doctor Championed Henrietta Lacks” (New York Times, October 23, 2023).

You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19. It’s also one of the many Good books about racism reviewed on this site.

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