Foreword–Prologue

A biography unlike any other, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a woman who made a contribution to science that still reverberates to this day in laboratories around the world.
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Explore the Words

definitions & notes only words
  1. fabricate
    make up something artificial or untrue
    This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated.
  2. clarity
    the quality of being coherent and easily understood
    Anything written in the first person in Deborah Lacks’s voice is a quote of her speaking, edited for length and occasionally clarity.
  3. verbatim
    in precisely the same words used by a writer or speaker
    Since Henrietta Lacks died decades before I began writing this book, I relied on interviews, legal documents, and her medical records to re-create scenes from her life. In those scenes, dialogue is either deduced from the written record or quoted verbatim as it was recounted to me in an interview.
    Because she'd spent years with Henrietta Lacks's family--getting to know them, recording them, and quoting their dialogues verbatim--the reporter/writer Skloot is able to deduce ("conclude by reasoning") and recreate dialogues that are suggested by the written evidence in front of her.
  4. disparate
    fundamentally different or distinct in quality or kind
    The extract from Henrietta’s medical record in chapter I is a summary of many disparate notations.
  5. oblivious
    lacking conscious awareness of
    It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine.
  6. inconceivable
    totally unlikely
    One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing.
    The piling of all the HeLa cells would be totally unlikely, but 50 million metric tons only seems like an "inconceivable" ("incapable of being understood or grasped fully") number in contrast to the actual weight of an individual cell.
  7. replenish
    fill something that had previously been emptied
    Defier paced the front of the classroom telling us how mitosis—the process of cell division—makes it possible for embryos to grow into babies, and for our bodies to create new cells for healing wounds or replenishing blood we’ve lost.
  8. immortal
    not subject to death
    Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. 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.
    This scientific definition of cell immortality is not the same as the immortality associated with gods and supernatural beings. Since the cells are reproducing, they are actually creating new cells rather than simply living forever. "Immortal" also means "a person of enduring fame" and this can now apply to Henrietta Lacks, since Skloot's book has positively connected her to the immortal HeLa cells.
  9. parenthetical
    qualifying or explaining
    After class, I ran home and threw myself onto my bed with my biology textbook. I looked up “cell culture” in the index, and there she was, a small parenthetical:
    Skloot uses the adjective "parenthetical" as a noun here to emphasize how Henrietta Lacks had been reduced to a small, seemingly less important, note in a biology textbook.
  10. omnipresent
    existing everywhere at once
    As I graduated from high school and worked my way through college toward a biology degree, HeLa cells were omnipresent.
  11. snippet
    a small piece of anything
    When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.
  12. ethical
    adhering to moral principles
    While trying to make sense of the history of cell culture and the complicated ethical debate surrounding the use of human tissues in research, I’d be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall both physically and metaphorically
  13. resilient
    recovering readily from adversity, depression, or the like
    I did eventually meet Deborah, who would turn out to be one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known. We’d form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine.
  14. agnostic
    a person who claims the existence of God is unknowable
    Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant; Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South.
  15. predominantly
    much greater in number or influence
    She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students.
Created on July 29, 2013 (updated April 9, 2019)

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