Written By: Rebecca Skloot

Narrated By: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin

Date: February 2010

Duration: 12 hours 30 minutes


#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly.”—Entertainment Weekly


NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • Entertainment Weekly • O: The Oprah Magazine • NPR • Financial Times • New York • Independent (U.K.) • Times (U.K.) • Publishers Weekly • Library Journal • Kirkus Reviews • Booklist • Globe and Mail

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, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. 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.

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. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? 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.


  • Anonymous

    The medical community showed very little compassion for Henrietta or her familiy. I'm not convinced this situation has changed when it comes to medical research. I can only hope the racist aspects have improved. Well researched and written.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful.

  • Jerbma

    This story is fantastic. The author researched it for about a decade, so it is exceedingly well-informed, and she is a talented storyteller as well. The story itself is unbelievably remarkable and astounding. It truly is, and I mean no exaggeration. The scope and breadth of what was a small beginning has now become something beyond words. The main subject of this story is now part of so much in our lives, in so many ways and on so many levels is something the author lays out, and leaves you in awe. And this all centers in a human being, a woman, who is complex and has so much about her character and her being that is made clear as well as laid bare alongside the telling of this amazing story that while you learn of this incredible scientific endeavor, you never forget that the woman that made it all happen, throughout the entire story. \r\n\r\nI enjoyed this book immensely and can\'t recommend it highly enough.

  • Kris R.

    I think Mrs Lacks family deserves every penny that was ever made selling Hela. This is tell tale signs of the different treatment that went on to persons of color. They should have at least get credit. I hope they win the lawsuit.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful, eye opening book.

  • Emily B.

    Fascinating!! As a scientist, this was very interesting to read.

  • Pamela M.

    Wonderfully written and narrated. Couldnt stop listening and reading. Makes me want to do my own research into African Americans as involuntary test subjects, etc.

  • Saga R.

    Well written book and a very well researched book. The story of the cells that have always been of interest to me ( being a biochemist) both broke my heart and lifted my spirit.

  • Novelette D.

    This book is soooo interesting! The subject matter was absolutely fascinating to me! I was sad when it ended. I wanted to keep listening. I just could not wait to get in my car so I could listen. This book made commuting fun!

  • Fredrika H.

    MIND BLOWING!!!!!!! Written so well and I would listen to any non fiction narrated by Cassandra Campbell, she is my all time favorite

  • Mollie S.

    Absolutely amazing! I loved this book so much that I was looking for any opportunity I could find to listen to it.

  • Annabree F.

    This is one of the most profoundly moving stories I have ever read. The story is disturbing at times and so very tragic for the most part. The narrator was fantastic and helped me get through the more difficult subject matter. It is a story worth listening to and will stay with me for a long time.

  • nab6215

    I don't even know where to start about this book. It is like "Roots" for human HeLa cell culture, but it's also about Henrietta Lacks and her family. This book took TEN YEARS to write. Wow. The end of the audiobook included an interview with Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book. Although you could tell that Rebecca got close to Henrietta's daughter, Deborah in the book, it came through in the warmth of Rebecca's voice during the interview. The original idea may have been who is the woman behind the HeLa cells, but it became much more.

  • Sakena P

    This is a great audiobook! I enjoyed how the author went in-depth on the family story as well as the history human cells and the research work. The book really showed the struggles and dilemmas from various perspectives. Thoroughly enjoyed the voice narratives and how it drew me into the story.

  • Lorena Cardenas

    Fantastic audiobook. Rebecca went over and beyond to gather information about Henrietta and the family. So much that I was unaware about until I heard the history about HELA.

  • Tarita Dooley

    This was an amazing tribute to the Lacks family and it was so informative. I enjoyed every moment of the narration and format in which the story was told. I hope that this is a story that will be instituted in the high schools for students to learn more about the very interesting build and outcome of this story. Amazing absolutely amazing to caputure not only the scientific points but to include where this amazing scientific and medical research breakthrough originated from. Great work!

  • vivian tas

    Very educational story, well researched and documented. Interesting and different. This is a wow story for anyone who hasn't read this story. Very interesting that the story was real biography, and a non-fiction. I would recommend this book to others. Narrator was very good, talking the different accents of the different ethnic groups. Very well done, as if I was right there with them in Clover, Baltimore, VA, and in those decades around 1950's to 1970's.

  • Shalean Williams

    This book is written so brilliantly and easy to understand. Ms. Rebecca put her heart and soul in this book.

  • Gayle Brossard Mahoney

    Love this, this should be read in Junior High School . History, Science, medical history, black history, cancer, polio, HPV studies and cures. Thank you Henrietta, Debra and Rebecca!

  • Alisha DeLong

    Very interesting I couldn't set it down. I loved this book!!

  • Brynn Bell

    Amazing story told so eloquently. Who would have thought.

  • Omar Hernandez

    Great book, interesting and thought provoking. I was intrigued by the history and the atrocities done to people in the name of science.

  • Bobby Nelson

    A1 since day 1....……, ..............,,,,..................,,,,...

  • Florene Scott

    Very interesting and very informational. A good listen. Couldn't put down.

  • Reader from Montana

    As a biology teacher, I have both read about HeLa cells and referenced them in class. This book was very well written - informative scientifically, but also showing the darker side of scientific/medical research, the arrogance of the researchers and the effects on the individuals involved. Hopefully the horrific stories about medical research techniques no longer occur today.

  • Shannon Perry

    Human interest story with science, as well as race relations evolving through history. Very interesting to listen to from start to finish.

  • Anonymous

    The medical community showed very little compassion for Henrietta or her familiy. I'm not convinced this situation has changed when it comes to medical research. I can only hope the racist aspects have improved. Well researched and written.

  • Anonymous

    This book was incredibly interesting from start to finish. Well reasearched and well written, it relates a family story, exposes past and present social issues, and relates very important medical issues. A must read for anyone practicing, or contemplating practicing medicine.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting read, from both a medical and personal perspective. Before reading this, I was completely unaware of the whole HeLa phenomenon, but this book was very thorough without dragging. It brought the story on Henrietta's family to life. It also highlighted the struggles of black Americans during the 40's and 50's without dwelling on them. Also, unlike some others, I enjoyed the narrator's voice.

  • Anonymous

    On my short list of all time remarkable books, because the (non-fiction)story it tells is so remarkable and because the author writes about such a complicated subject with such simple and understandable grace. She researches a dauntingly complex subject and presents it with a clear explanation and a human face. Outstanding.

  • Anonymous

    Refreshing to find a book which is in essence, a medical documentary, yet written in a fashion that tells an interesting an poignant story. Narration helped to maintain my interest.

  • Anonymous

    As a scientist who has worked for many years with HeLa cells, I found this book extremely informative. I hope someday that our HIPPA regulations will be standardized among institutions so that we will be able to communicate better with the consented families and proceed with our important research projects using human tissues and cells for the benefit of everyone.

  • Anonymous

    This book is very interesting but it dragged in parts. At times it seemed as if the author was being redundant. I also hated the narrator's voice (the voice of the author) it was grating.

  • Anonymous

    The book was well written and extremely interesting. Told the story of racism as well as how the cells of one woman became a phenomenon. Well worth the read.

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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