russia has launched a full-scale war in Ukraine! Headway asks you to donate to the charity fund to protect Ukraine and the world’s peace.

Support Ukraine

library / 
4.7 (19041 reviews)

Summary of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 

Short summary

Until recently, there was no demarcation line about medical researchers’ limits when choosing their specimens. Also, decisions regarding the sacredness of patients’ privacy were left to the whims of medical personnel. Early medical researchers used bodies from graveyards and criminals as cadavers. Like water, they follow the path of least resistance. In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” we are made to see another perspective of segregation manifested in advanced medical research. Poor and people of color were exploited, mostly without consent, for research purposes. However, this summary shows us how deep an imprint a single life can leave on humanity. Rebecca Skloot, is a prolific science writer. The volume of investigative effort which she put into writing about Henrietta Lacks brought her to the limelight with what happens to be her first book. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has been translated into over twenty languages. Likewise, Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball collaborated in adopting the famous book into a movie. “Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.” ~ Rebecca Skloot

Key points


A short, Black, beautiful, but obscure woman

An obscure woman has imparted almost every living human’s life but is mostly unknown — at least not by her name and the personality that her life symbolized. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, known to the medical world as HeLa — the moniker given to the living cell samples cultured from her body.

Rebecca Skloot, as a teenager, first learned about HeLa cells and its source, Henrietta Lacks, in high school. Having missed Biology class in the first year of high school, she had to take a freshman course in Biology at the community college. During one of the classes, the professor in charge, Donald Defler, alluded to HeLa cells to explain cellular reproduction. Defler was aware that HeLa cells came from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. Other than that, he did not know anymore, neither cared to find out.

Defler explained during that class on cellular reproduction that several medical discoveries and innovations are a product of research performed on HeLa cells. Hearing this intrigued Skloot and prompted her investigation into the life and times of Henrietta Lacks. After high school, Skloot proceeded to earn a college degree in Biology, in the process of which she ubiquitously encountered HeLa cells. Skloot didn’t miss out on any opportunity to learn more about Henrietta. It all seemed to Skloot like Henrietta’s story was a chasm that needed to be filled. She was finding it difficult coming to terms with the world, not knowing a woman whose cells have brought so much medical innovation to humanity.
How humanity occasionally forgets to sing her heroes’ praises often comes as an irony; far worse is exploiting them due to their purported lower caste.
Before long, Skloot found herself collecting magazines, newspaper clippings, online articles, and anything that mentioned HeLa cells and their original carrier. Many of these sources bore information that was a caricature of reality. Some publications even got her name wrong — calling her Helen Lane. There were several published interviews of the Lacks family members, most of which indicated displeasure with their moral and financial exploitation. Some research institutes were making money from reproducing Henrietta’s never-dying cells and selling them in vials.

It is interesting how much of an impact a seemingly unimportant individual could have. This summary will help you understand how priceless human life can be.

Henrietta’s life before and after diagnosis

Skloot proceeded to graduate school, where she studied writing. In the process, she approached the Lacks family members for their account of the circumstances around Henrietta’s death and what led to her cells to become a global medical research specimen. Initially, members of the Lacks family were reluctant to grant her an audience. At this juncture, Skloot intended to immortalize Henrietta and the HeLa cells. Upon learning this, Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, committed to assist with her.
Continue reading with Headway app
Continue the summary
Other chapters is waiting for you in the app

One man’s death is another’s eureka


A fight to raise the dead


Salvation from the grave begins


How the story of one of the most influential women goes



Buy full book on AmazonContinue the summary

What is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks about?

Who should read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Topics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks