Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (audio)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
author: Rebecca Skloot
read by: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
genre: nonfiction audiobook
publisher: Random House Audio, 2010
length: 12 hours 30 minutes
source: purchased from

In a nutshell:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating history of cell culture, the real woman behind HeLa cells, and the impact of HeLa research and development on her family.

My thoughts:
When I graduated from college in the 1980's and began a career in clinical pharmacy at a teaching hospital involved with investigational drug trials, I became aware of HeLa cells and their importance in medical research. Now, nearly 30 years later, I have come to realize that HeLa was, in fact, a living human being. Her name was Henrietta Lacks.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a young black woman who died from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her tumor lead to an exciting scientific breakthrough when they were cultured and grown in a laboratory. Eventually, these cells were commercially mass-produced and marketed throughout the world, and a new era in medical research began. The cell line, still used today, played a critical role in many medical advances. However, Henrietta's husband and children knew nothing about it.

Rebecca Skloot was in close contact with Henrietta's family, especially her daughter Deborah, during the years of research preceding publication. This book is as much their story as Henrietta's or Rebecca's. Skloot was present to assist and chronicle their experience as an understanding of Henrietta's cells, their scientific impact, and long-hidden family history was gained.

Skloot's research and the Lacks' remarkable journey raise many questions of medical ethics, and put into perspective just how recently current standards of informed consent, privacy, etc. have come into practice. Healthcare inequities are also brought to the forefront. While large sums of money were being made on the HeLa cell line, Henrietta's descendants struggled to afford basic health insurance. Book clubs are sure to find a variety of topics for discussion here ranging from medical ethics, faith, and science, to class, racism, and journalism.

Cassandra Campbell has long been one of my favorite readers. Her voice in this production imparts an even more pronounced 'human quality' to the narrative. This is by no means a dry, scientific text.

Bottom line:
Even if you have little interest in cell culture, medical research, or ethics, there is still enough human drama to keep nearly anyone enthralled.
Very highly recommended.


  1. I read an article on this book and it sounds absolutely fascinating! Great write up, I am even more intrigued -- and what an incredible story.

  2. I absolutely agree with you! I listened to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a few months back, even though I don't have a particularly scientific background and don't read much nonfiction. I thought Skloot did a great job integrating scientific fact, history, and personal memoir, all in a writing style that made the whole thing wonderfully accessible. The reader for the audio version was a good choice as well. I learned a great deal and enjoyed myself!

  3. Well heck, why don't I just cut and paste your review over to mine! I just finished this audio last week and I was blown away. Ripped my heart out too. You are right Cassandra Campbell is such a wonderful narrator...I fell in love with her back when I listened to The School of Essential Ingredients.

  4. I was a tad bit nervous about this one, because I am not a science person, but man did I love this book. Its readability, given the subject matter, is unbelievable!

  5. Really enjoyed your review - what a remarkable story. Hope you'll post a link to your review on Audiobook Jukebox:
    More people need to know about this audiobook!

  6. Yep, what Stephanie said. This is a very readable book, and I'm always excited to find that in non-fiction.

  7. Coffee and a Book Chick - I hope you get a chance to read or listen to this. It is truly an amazing story!

    Erin - It's been a couple of month since I listened to this too (I'm playing catch up with reviews), but I am so impressed with what Skloot was able to do with this story! I'll read anything she writes from now on.

    Sandy - Yep, Cassandra Campbell is tops when it comes to audiobook readers. Right now, this is near the top of my favorite audiobooks of the year. Don't know if anything can edge out Let the Great World Spin though...

    Stephanie - Exactly!! "Its readability, given the subject matter, is unbelievable!" Wish I'd said that...

    AudiobookDJ - Thank you! I'll be stopping by tomorrow to post a few of my reviews... have been meaning to do that for a while.

    Fizzythoughts - Stephanie really said it! Non-fiction doesn't get much better than this!

  8. I had the pleasure of having Rebecca Skloot and her dad, Floyd, lead my small group in a week long writing conference. She was working on the book at the time. Took an incredible amount of time. I liked her very well and have heard great things about the book. I plan to choose it as my next book club choice.

  9. I know the feeling -- I worked with these cells too and really didn't think about their origin.

    My book club read this, and not everyone has a science background. There was quite a lot to talk about, including the motives and ethics of the author.

    Love your new header (but I always love seeing the seasons change through your photos).

    Thanks so much for linking this up to Audiobook Jukebox.

  10. Excellent review! I've heard very good things about this book and one of my co-workers read it after it first came out and she loved it. I think it'll have to be one my book club reads in 2011.

  11. I nearly picked this up before I went on holiday. I wish I had now.It sounds so interesting.

  12. Midlife Jobhunter - I think a book club could have an excellent discussion with this one! I was sorry my group didn't select it... they thought it might be 'too scientific'. Now that I've finished, I will pitch it again. Must have been an amazing experience to have Rebecca Skloot and her dad lead your group!

    Beth F - I'd love to sit in on a group discussion... so disappointed mine didn't select this one. Glad you like the new header, and thanks for getting Audiobook Jukebox going - great site!!

    Les - Thanks! This was such a fascinating book and I learned a lot, too. I'll be interested to hear what your book club thinks of it.

    Vivienne - It really is fascinating, but not exactly your typical 'holiday-type' book. Hope you get a chance to read it eventually.

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  16. I have the print version of this book waiting on my shelf. I am not a scientific person at all (those types of books and discussions normally go straight over my head!) but I was tempted to buy this one because of the strong humanistic element - I am really looking forward to reading it now.

  17. I'm fascinated by this story and your take on it makes me want to read it even more.

  18. I have seen so many raves about this book but didn't realize what it was was about - the story seems fascinating! I will have to read/listen to it!

  19. Karen - I have a feeling you're going to like this one!

    Staci - This is one amazing book... had no idea who/what went into making HeLa cells, and the story of Henrietta's family is fascinating.

    Booksnyc - I think you'd definitely like this one... the only problem would be whether to read or listen!

  20. I've heard about this book and it's been on my eventually I'd like to read it list. But after such a positive review, and me being a science-type person, I think I'll get to it sooner.

  21. Leslie - If you're a science person, then my recommendation is even stronger!

  22. Definitely sounds like a moving, thought-provoking read/listen -- and one I'm eager to get my hands on! I've read many great reviews lately and am sure I'm missing out. Thanks for a great review!

  23. Meg - It definitely is! This is in the running for my best nonfiction of the year.


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