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'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' wins the Wellcome Trust Book Prize

10 November 2010

Ten years in the making, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ - a beautiful but harrowing work of non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot - has won the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

Taking readers on a journey of scientific discovery, the book tells the story of a poor southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine.

The £25 000 Wellcome Trust Book Prize is open to outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction on the theme of health and medicine. It brings together the worlds of medicine and literature, appealing to literature lovers and science enthusiasts.

This debut work by Rebecca Skloot took a decade to chronicle, and weaves together the Lacks's family story from the first culturing of HeLa cells (as they became known) to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans and the birth of bioethics.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine and uncovering data about cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb. They helped lead to important advances, such as in vitro fertilisation, cloning and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta herself, however, remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. Today, her family can't afford the heathcare advances that their mother's cells helped to make possible.

This year's shortlist for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize featured a diverse range of fiction and non-fiction with each book giving a unique and dramatic insight into the medical world.

Chairing the judging panel of five, former barrister, comedy writer and presenter, Clive Anderson said: "This is an engaging account of the life of Henrietta Lacks, who died in Baltimore nearly 60 years ago and the immortal life of her cancer cells, which continue to replicate in research laboratories around the world to this day. There are several stories to be told: the changing attitudes and ethics of the medical profession; the economics of healthcare; and the successes and slip-ups of modern scientific methods. In addition, the book reveals the human story of Henrietta Lacks' family, who the author got to know in the course of her extensive research. A worthy winner of a prize designed to honour fine writing on a medical theme."

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust added: "It's wonderful that the Prize has been awarded to a book that was such a labour of love for its author. Rebecca Skloot's work absolutely meets the objective of this prize. It has something of everything - a compelling science story, an emotional personal story and intriguing ethical dilemmas - and all woven together and written with great style. Congratulations!"

Clive Anderson's judging panel included: writer and former Man Booker judge Maggie Gee; writer, professor and former Man Booker judge A C Grayling; University College London-based medical historian Michael Neve, and anatomist, anthropologist, presenter and author Alice Roberts. 

Find out more about the shortlisted books and download book club packs by clicking here.

Find out more about the 2010 judges

Image: Front cover of 'The Immortal Life of Herrietta Lacks' Credit: Wellcome Trust Book Prize

Notes to editors

Media enquiries
Rachel Duffield or Ruth Cairns at Colman Getty
020 7631 2666
020 7631 2699
rachel@colmangetty.co.uk or ruth@colmangetty.co.uk

Katrina Nevin-Ridley at the Wellcome Trust
0207 611 8540

About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK T:+44 (0)20 7611 8888