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The Arts and Medicine
December 26, 2017

Movie Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author Affiliations
  • 1University of Washington, Seattle
  • 2Editor in Chief, JAMA Oncology
JAMA. 2017;318(24):2410-2412. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.17916

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the book by author Rebecca Skloot that spent 75 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, tells the story of a young African American woman who died of cervical cancer at age 31 years, leaving behind a husband and 5 young children. Just prior to her death and without consent, researchers at Johns Hopkins University sampled her tissue and initiated the first immortalized cell line from her cancer, an amazing feat in 1951 as human cells had never before been successfully cultured. The HeLa cervical cancer cell line has been a workhorse in scientific research ever since. But for Henrietta’s children, the fact that their mother’s cells are immortal—alive and well and reproducing endlessly in laboratories around the world—while their mother died when she and they were far too young, is a painful and confusing legacy that touches every aspect of their lives.