The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) is a non-fiction book by American author Rebecca Skloot. It was the 2011 winner of the National Academies Communication Award for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life Henrietta Lacks (cover).jpg
First edition
AuthorRebecca Skloot
CountryUnited States
Publication date
February 2, 2010
Media typePrint (Hardback)


The book is about Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line, known as HeLa, that came from Lacks's cervical cancer cells in 1951. Skloot became interested in Lacks after a biology teacher referenced her but knew little about her. Skloot began conducting extensive research on her and worked with Lacks' family to create the book. The book is notable for its science writing and dealing with ethical issues of race and class in medical research. Skloot said that some of the information was taken from the journal of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks's daughter, as well as from "archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research." It is Skloot's first book.[1]


The book was initially released in hardcover, published by Crown, on February 2, 2010 (ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2). On the same date, an audiobook edition was published by Random House Audio, narrated by Casandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin (ISBN 978-0-307-71250-9), as well as electronic editions in mobile (Kindle) and EPUB formats. A paperback edition was published by Broadway Books on March 8, 2011 (ISBN 978-1-4000-5218-9). It has also been translated into more than 25 foreign language editions.[2]



The book was awarded the National Academies Best Book of the Year Award,[3] the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Young Adult Science Book award,[4] and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding work of fiction or non-fiction on the theme of health and medicine.[5] It also won the Heartland Prize for non-fiction,[6] among others, including a Salon Book Award, and a 100 New York Times Notable Books of the Year. The paperback edition had spent 75 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.[7]

Critical receptionEdit

Critical reception was largely favorable. It was named a best book of the year by more than 60 media outlets, including New York Times, Oprah, NPR, and Entertainment Weekly.[8][promotional source?] Lisa Margonelli reviewing in The New York Times Book Review said:

Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.[9]

Dwight Garner of The New York Times wrote:

I put down Rebecca Skloot’s first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time …It has brains and pacing and nerve and heart.[10]

One reviewer for The New Atlantis, while mostly positive about the book, questioned its ethical arguments about tissue markets and informed consent involving scientists such as Chester M. Southam, and claimed to have found factual errors: one related to the role of HeLa cells in early space missions, and, another related to a statement in the book that says "if all HeLa cells ever grown could have been gathered on a scale, their total weight would have measured more than 50 million metric tons."[11] Skloot addresses this question on her website, where she explains how the 50 million metric tons figure was calculated, saying "That calculation was based on the way HeLa cells are known to divide (specifically how often they double their numbers) and the amount of time they’d been alive at the time the calculation was made." She clarifies that "it was a hypothetical calculation because that many cells couldn’t have been saved and put on a scale." She also says that the figures "were verified before the book went to press by the scientists who did the original calculations, and outside experts."[12]

Academic receptionEdit

The book was adopted as a common reading text at more than 125 universities and was widely taught in high school, undergraduate, graduate and doctoral classrooms.[8][promotional source?]

In September 2015, schools in Knox County, Tennessee were faced with demands from a parent that the book be removed from Knox County classrooms and libraries; the parent in question alleged that the scene in which Lacks discovered her tumor was depicted in a "pornographic" way.[13]

In other mediaEdit


In 2010, it was announced that a television film project based on the book was in development. Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball were teaming together to bring the biopic to HBO.[14] HBO began production on the film in the summer of 2016. Winfrey executive-produced and starred as Deborah, the daughter of Henrietta Lacks.[15] George C. Wolfe wrote the screenplay and directed the film. Lacks' sons and granddaughter were planned to serve as consultants.[16] The film aired in 2017.

In Alex Garland's film Annihilation (2018), Natalie Portman's character is seen reading the book in one scene; her character is a biologist who specializes in cancer and the film explores genetic mutations.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Jessica Teisch, "Floyd Skloot & Rebecca Skloot", in Bookmarks, May/June 2010.
  2. ^ "UK Publisher of The Immortal Life Shares Story of UK Cover Design". 26 July 2011. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  3. ^ "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Wins Best Book Award". National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Press release). 15 September 2011. Archived from the original on 24 September 2011. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  4. ^ Schaffer, Carla. "2010 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Film (SB&F) Winners Announced". American Association for the Advancement of Science December 17, 2010. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  5. ^ "'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' wins the Wellcome Trust Book Prize". Wellcome Trust. 10 November 2010. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  6. ^ "E. O. Wilson and Rebecca Skloot: 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prizes". Chicago Humanities Festival. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  7. ^ "Best Sellers". The New York Times. 26 August 2012. Archived from the original on 14 December 2013. Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  8. ^ a b "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". online catalog. Random House. 2015. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  9. ^ "Eternal Life", By Lisa Margonelli, The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 2010.
  10. ^ Dwight Garner (2 February 2010). "A Woman's Undying Gift to Science". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 30 July 2014.
  11. ^ Ari N. Schulman (Spring 2012). "What Is the Body Worth?". The New Atlantis. Archived from the original on 19 December 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2012.
  12. ^ "On The Science of HeLa Cells", by Rebecca Skloot, captured October 1, 2012
  13. ^ Henrietta Lacks biographer Rebecca Skloot responds to US parent over 'porn' allegation, by Alison Flood, in the Guardian; published September 9, 2015; retrieved September 11, 2015
  14. ^ "Oprah Winfrey, Alan Ball team for HBO pic". The Hollywood Reporter. Associated Press. 12 May 2010. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  15. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (2 May 2016). "Oprah Winfrey To Star In HBO Films' 'The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks'". Deadline. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  16. ^ Stanhope, Kate (2 May 2016). "Oprah Winfrey to Star in HBO Films' 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 3 May 2016.

External linksEdit