The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks- Summary & Analysis

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a non-fiction book that tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951 and used to create the first immortal human cell line, known as HeLa cells. HeLa cells have been used in countless medical advances, such as the development of the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and in vitro fertilization.

Book TitleThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
AuthorRebecca Skloot
Publication Year2010
GenreNon-fiction, Science, Biography
SettingBaltimore, Maryland, and Clover, Virginia, 1951-2009


The characters of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot are:

  1. Henrietta Lacks ➤ A young Black woman diagnosed with cervical cancer whose cell sample becomes the famous HeLa cell line. She is known for being generous and caring.
  2. Deborah Lacks ➤ Henrietta’s youngest daughter. She is very involved with learning about her mother and the HeLa cells with Skloot’s help.
  3. David “Day” Lacks ➤ Henrietta’s husband and cousin, a poor steel worker. He cares for Henrietta and blames Hopkins for her death. He fears going to the doctor after he learns about Henrietta’s cells because he believes they will use parts of him for research too.
  4. Rebecca Skloot ➤ The author of the book. She is a white woman who becomes obsessed with Henrietta Lacks’ story.
  5. George Gey ➤ The scientist who develops the HeLa cell line. He is a complex figure who is both praised for his contributions to science and criticized for his lack of transparency and informed consent.
  6. Lawrence Lacks ➤ Henrietta’s oldest son
  7. Zakariyya Lacks ➤ Henrietta’s second-oldest son
  8. Lucy Lacks ➤ Henrietta’s sister
  9. Bobette Lacks ➤ Henrietta’s niece
  10. Roland Pattillo ➤ A scientist who studies HeLa cells and helps Deborah learn about her mother’s cells
  11. Christoph Lengauer ➤ A scientist who helps Deborah and her family understand and benefit from Henrietta’s cells


The themes of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot are:

  1. Medical Ethics ➤ This book dives into the ethical questions surrounding the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her knowledge or consent, and how this impacted medical research.
  2. Informed Consent ➤ It raises questions about the importance of obtaining informed consent from individuals when conducting medical research or using their biological samples.
  3. Scientific Progress and Human Rights ➤ It grapples with the balance between scientific progress and the rights and dignity of individuals, especially those from marginalized communities.
  4. Family and Legacy ➤ The story looks into how the Lacks family comes to terms with Henrietta’s legacy, the impact on their lives, and their feelings about her cells being used in scientific research.
  5. Health Disparities ➤ The book sheds light on the disparities in healthcare and medical treatment, particularly for African American communities, and how Henrietta’s story exemplifies these issues.
  6. The Human Side of Science ➤ It humanizes the world of medical research by showing the real people and families affected by scientific advancements.
  7. Identity and Ownership ➤ The book raises questions about who owns our biological materials and the rights we have over them, especially in the context of medical research.


Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman whose cells were used to create a well-known cell line that has assisted scientists in making numerous medical advances. However, Henrietta and her family never benefited from her cells, and they were not made aware of them until years later. This book tells the story of Henrietta and looks into the ethical issues surrounding her case.


Henrietta Lacks, an African American lady, found what she thought was a “knot” on her cervix in 1951. It turned out to be a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. George Gey, the director of tissue culture, had been tasked with creating a culture of both malignant and healthy surgical cell tissue by the chief of gynecology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who was researching cervical cancer at the time. Gey requested tissue samples from Henrietta Lacks and all other patients with cervical cancer as a consequence. At the time, no human cell had ever endured for an extended period in a lab, but Gey’s HeLa cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks did. 

Henrietta was receiving treatment for cervical cancer at the same time, but she passed away from the illness, leaving her husband and five children behind. The Lacks family was unaware that some of her cells were still alive after being removed by specialists. Day hesitated when the physicians at Hopkins asked for an autopsy on Henrietta, but he eventually agreed at the urging of his cousin when the doctor said that the data from the autopsy could one day assist his kids. The family didn’t realize that a portion of Henrietta was still alive until 1973 when a family acquaintance who was a researcher stated that he performed work on HeLa cells.

Gey’s cultivation of HeLa cells not only survived, but it also allowed researchers to study illness and genetics in a way never before possible and create novel drugs and vaccines. Gey provided samples of HeLa cells at no cost to any researcher who asked for them. For-profit cell culture facilities started to appear over time, generating HeLa cells and other cell lines in large quantities to more effectively supply research centers. However, HeLa cells can infect other cell cultures due to their tenacity and rapid growth. Geneticists learned in 1973 that they could more quickly determine whether cultures had been infected if they could isolate certain genetic markers from HeLa cells. 

A scientist at Hopkins requested blood samples from Henrietta’s children to achieve this. Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, thought she was receiving a cancer screening since the physicians failed to make sure the Lacks children understood why they needed to have blood collected.

Meanwhile, the media circulated the tale of the “immortal” cell culture and the enigmatic woman behind the cells since HeLa cells and cell culturing promised so many medical advancements. Henrietta’s true name was published in a tiny specialized publication by a colleague of Gey, but most major news organizations misidentified her as Helen Lane. Henrietta Lacks’ real identity was unknown until 1975 when Rolling Stone reporter Michael Rogers approached the Lacks family for a piece on HeLa cells. 

The Lacks family was shocked to find that Henrietta’s cells were being used for commercial purposes. They were brought back to the horrible past of white US physicians using black individuals in immoral studies. The family was still contacted by journalists, including a BBC documentary crew in 1996. Deborah had hoped that the film would tell Henrietta’s tale and teach her more about her mother. Unfortunately, Sir Lord Cofield, a con artist, was drawn to the family by the documentary. Cofield pretended to be a lawyer and said he could assist the family in suing Hopkins Hospital. He threatened legal action against the family once they uncovered his deception, which terrified them. Deborah suffered a stroke due to the strain of the situation.

The book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, made contact with the Lacks family in 1999 when she started her investigation. The family first didn’t want to meet with her due to the history of white journalists contacting them for stories without providing transparency or fair remuneration, in addition to the quite recent incident with Cofield. Skloot nevertheless persisted in attempting to get in touch and spoke with several Lacks family cousins. Skloot put messages on Deborah’s phone revealing what she uncovered about Henrietta’s youth since she knew Deborah wanted to know more about who her mother was as a person. 

Sonny and Deborah Lack finally consented to talk with her. Skloot committed Deborah to share all of her findings and aid in her quest to comprehend what had happened to her mother. In addition, she was interested in learning what happened to Elsie, her sister, who had been committed to a mental hospital before Deborah was born. Skloot concurred, and Deborah frequently went with Skloot on her fieldwork excursions.

The Lacks family was invited to a Johns Hopkins researcher’s lab in 2001. Together with Skloot, Deborah and Zakariyya, Deborah’s brother, visited Hopkins to see where their mother’s cells were stored and even witnessed the division of HeLa cells under a microscope in real-time. Elsie had been institutionalized earlier that week, and when Skloot and Deborah visited her there, they learned that she had endured terrible mistreatment. The stress of all Deborah had learned that weekend caused her blood pressure to rise, and she started acting strangely. Gary, her cousin, relieved Deborah of the weight of the cells by performing a spiritual purification ceremony on her. 

Skloot was shocked when Gary said that from today, Skloot would assist in bearing Deborah’s load. Deborah decided that she needed to study more science to comprehend what had happened to her mother, but she lacked the funds to enroll in adult education. Instead, she concentrated her energies on encouraging her grandkids and the grandchildren of her relatives to attend school. Skloot kept in touch with Deborah during the writing of the book and pledged to provide her with a copy of the finished product before it was published. Sadly, Deborah passed away in 2009, just as Skloot was polishing the book for release.


What is the main point of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

The main point of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is to explore the ethical and social implications of Henrietta Lacks’ story and the impact of her cells on medical science.

Why is Henrietta Lacks’ story important?

Henrietta Lacks’ story is important because it raises important questions about informed consent, the rights of research participants, and the exploitation of marginalized people.

What can I learn from Henrietta Lacks’ story?

Henrietta Lacks’ story teaches us the importance of informed consent, the rights of research participants, and the need to protect the vulnerable from exploitation. It also reminds us of the importance of giving credit where credit is due and of ensuring that everyone benefits from the contributions of others.

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