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Book Rec: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Updated: Jul 7

“Whether you think the commercialization of medical research is good or bad depends on how into capitalism you are.”

Before this book, I was pretty ignorant of the role Henrietta Lacks played in modern medicine. A film based on the novel was released in 2017, but it wasn’t until recently I heard about her story. Rebecca Skloot’s clear passion for Henrietta Lacks’ journey and her impact on medical science helps raise awareness to the bioethical issues surrounding tissue donation. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be a must-read for all!

red background of cells developing with a picture in blck and white of henrietta lacks

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine: The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Intimate, astonishing and many times cringe worthy, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks questions the bioethics of science and its real human consequences.

Discussion Questions

  1. This book is as much about Henrietta Lacks as it is about Deborah learning about her mother and sister Elsie. Imagine discovering the same information about one of your family members. How would you react?

  2. Deborah says, “But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense.” Should the family be financially compensated for the HeLa cells?

  3. How do you feel about the Supreme Court of California’s ruling that states when tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes?

  4. How does the family’s religious faith impact their response to the HeLa knowledge? How does it frame their interpretation of the scientific advancements?


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