The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the first and bestselling book by science journalist Rebecca Skloot. Blending the line between nonfiction and narrative, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the reporter who sought to uncover her story. Lacks, a tobacco farmer from Virginia, died in 1951 from cervical cancer, but not before her cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent for scientific and medical use. These cells, known as the HeLa line, became the cornerstone for scientific research for much of the late 20th century. However, Henrietta's surviving descendants continue to live in poverty despite their connection to these scientific breakthroughs.

Skloot first learned about Henrietta when a biology professor passingly mentioned her during a lecture about the importance and impact of the HeLa cell line. While the lecturer’s focus was on the scientific achievements and medical breakthroughs Henrietta’s cells facilitated, Skloot was drawn to the woman herself—who was she? Did she know how important her cells were? What about her family? The professor didn’t have any answers for Skloot, and this fueled her interest even further. The desire to learn about Henrietta resulted in a decade-long research project, one that drew in Henrietta’s family, the institutions who took advantage of Henrietta, and the numerous scientists who used her cells. The end product of Skloot’s research, interviews, and investigation is the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 75 weeks and occupied the number one spot for a major portion of that time. Critics and readers alike raved about the book’s compelling subject matter and the questions it raises about medical ethics, race, and the nature of immortality. The book’s unique structure, and how it weaves together three different narratives (the story of Skloot and Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, the story of Henrietta and the cells, and the story of Henrietta’s family) also received positive attention and acclaim. One critic claims there are factual errors in the number of HeLa cells existing today, but otherwise praises the book for its unflinching look at the injustices involved in Henrietta’s story.

The description of Henrietta's discovery of her cervical cancer has prompted controversy. in 2015, a parent in Tennessee took issue with the scene in which Henrietta discovers her cervical cancer ("With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening to her womb" (pg. 17)). This parent called the scene pornographic, and urged the school system to remove all copies of the book from its shelves. Rebecca Skloot replied that “a parent in Tennessee has confused gynaecology with pornography and is trying to get my book banned from the Knoxville high school system [...] I choose to focus on those stories, and I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them. Because my book is many things: It’s a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography" (Flood, 2015). See the Website Links section of this ClassicNote for more details.

In 2010, HBO optioned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be made into a TV movie. The film was aired in 2017, but it received lackluster reviews.