USF Common Read Experience


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2013-2014)

Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died…

The 2013 book selection is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This New York Times bestseller recounts the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, southern African American farmer, whose cells – taken without her knowledge – were the first human cells grown in a lab and kept alive outside the body. The critical issues connected with this book are many, including medical and scientific breakthroughs, human subject research and ethical decision-making.

  • Reader’s Guide

  • The author and book were featured on Oprah, NPR, and many other radio and television shows. The book has been translated into 25 languages, made into an HBO movie, a documentary, received numerous awards, and so on.

    1. Why should I read this book?
    2. How can I participate in the Common Reading Experience if I’m not a first-year student? How can I get a copy of the book?
    3. Who was Henrietta Lacks?
    4. Why is the story of Henrietta Lacks so important?
    5. Where is Henrietta’s family today, and how have they reacted to the book?
    6. What messages should be taken from the story?

    Why should I read this book?

    It is important that you and others read this book. It addresses real issues on ethical decision making and medical advances through research. You will learn how these issues impact the advancement of our global society. As the author states, this book “brings together many disparate fields…and allows them to explore the real-world consequences of intellectual discoveries…bringing together health, community, family, ethics, religion, science, storytelling, history, business, law, and humanity.”

    How can I participate in the Common Reading Experience if I’m not a first-year student? How can I get a copy of the book?

    While the Common Reading Experience engages the incoming first-year students, participation from all other students and members of the university community is welcome. Other faculty will integrate parts of the book and its issues into their classes. Both undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to participate and can attend the public events and join in the discussion across campus. You can purchase a copy of the book at the USF Bookstore. Additional copies are available from the USF Library in paperback and e-book editions.

    Who was Henrietta Lacks?

    Henrietta Lacks was a poor, southern African American tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early 1950s. During her time in the hospital, samples of her cells were taken without her knowledge. These cells, known as HeLa cells, became the first human cells grown in a lab and kept alive outside the body. Even though Henrietta died in 1951, her cells are alive and continue to grow today.

    Why is the story of Henrietta Lacks so important?

    Although Henrietta lived many years ago, her story still lives on today. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explores issues of race, class, science, ethics, human culture and the importance of education and research. The challenges faced by Henrietta and her family are still present in our society today. While HeLa cells were at the heart of some of the most progressive medical discoveries, they brought a lot of pain and suffering to the Lacks family. This book calls into question many current medical practices and will challenge students to see the story from all angles.

    Where is Henrietta’s family today, and how have they reacted to the book?

    According to the author, Rebecca Skloot, the Lacks family has embraced the book. Upon the book’s initial release, they would attend public events with Skloot and now they also travel and give talks of their own (Skloot). To see where members of the Lacks family are speaking currently, you may visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

    What messages should be taken from the story?

    There are several messages that can be taken from the book, but that will depend on the interpretations of each individual reader. The most prevalent messages surround the issues of trust, race, medicine, human subject research, social standing and education. Rebecca Skloot also points out that beyond the science and ethical questions lies a story about a family who is impacted by the loss of their mother (Skloot).

    There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. 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. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.” No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.
    Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

    On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall. He was parked under a towering oak tree outside Johns Hopkins Hospital with three of his children—two still in diapers—waiting for their mother, Henrietta. A few minutes earlier she’d jumped out of the car, pulled her jacket over her head, and scurried into the hospital, past the “colored” bathroom, the only one she was allowed to use. In the next building, under an elegant domed copper roof, a ten-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus stood, arms spread wide, holding court over what was once the main entrance of Hopkins. No one in Henrietta’s family ever saw a Hopkins doctor without visiting the Jesus statue, laying flowers at his feet, saying a prayer, and rubbing his big toe for good luck. But that day Henrietta didn’t stop. She went straight to the waiting room of the gynecology clinic, a wide-open space, empty but for rows of long, straight-backed benches that looked like church pews. “I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor needs to have a look.”

    Chapter Listing

    1. The Exam (1951)
    2. Clover (1920-1942)
    3. Diagnosis and Treatment (1951)
    4. The Birth of HeLa (1951)
    5. “Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside” (1951)
    6. “Lady’s on the Phone” (1999)
    7. The Death and Life of Cell Culture
    8. “A Miserable Specimen” (1951)
    9. Turner Station (1999)
    10. The Other Side of the Tracks (1999)
    11. “The Devil of Pain Itself” (1951)
    12. The Storm (1951)
    13. The HeLa Factory (1951-1953)
    14. Helen Lane (1953-1954)
    15. “Too Young to Remember” (1951-1965)
    16. “Spending Eternity in the Same Place” (1999)
    17. Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable (1954-1966)
    18. “Strangest Hybrid” (1960-1966)
    19. “The Most Critical Time on This Earth Is Now” (1966-1973)
    20. The HeLa Bomb (1966)
    21. Night Doctors (2000)
    22. “The Fame She So Richly Deserves” (1970-1973)
    23. “It’s Alive” (1973-1974)
    24. “Least They Can Do” (1975)
    25. “Who Told You You Could Sell My Spleen?” (1976-1988)
    26. Breach of Privacy (1981-1985)
    27. The Secret of Immortality (1984-1995)
    28. After London (1996-1999)
    29. A Village of Henriettas (2000)
    30. Zakariyya (2000)
    31. Hela, Goddess of Death (2000-2001)
    32. “All That’s My Mother” (2001)
    33. The Hospital for the Negro Insane (2001)
    34. The Medical Records (2001)
    35. Soul Cleansing (2001)
    36. Heavenly Bodies (2001)
    37. “Nothing to Be Scared About” (2001)
    38. The Long Road to Clover (2009)

    Rebecca Skloot

    Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer with a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, Discover, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She has taught creative nonfiction and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is her first book and has been a New York Times bestseller since its release in 2010.

    Rebecca Skloot’s website has a lot of information including news, photos, videos, blog posts, and articles. More information about the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, founded by Rebecca Skloot, can be found at http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/

    Video | Radio | Print

    University Experience Curriculum

    The “One Book – Global Connections” common reading experience is supported in the University Experience (UE) course through guided discussions and assignments that connect learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. These curriculum initiatives are intended to complement other courses that are participating in the common reading experience. UE students will attend campus events designed to expand the scope of the book to global application. Through critical thinking and exploration of personal values, students will gain a broader understanding of the ethical issues presented in this book and the associated implications for the global community.

    First Year Composition

    The First Year Composition (FYC) program supports the common reading experience by utilizing the text as a generative invention tool throughout the semester. Students will begin the semester by thinking critically about the variety of issues raised by the book and writing a response to these issues in a “First Day Diagnostic” writing prompt. At the end of the semester, students will be invited to revise their answers using the skills they have practiced and developed in ENC 1101 and ENC 1102, and exemplary essays will be “published” (with the permission of the student) to the FYC website. The book will also be used as a basis for guided discussion, a source for examples related to projects and assignments, and as a common resource for daily classroom activities. Through an exploration of the issues at stake in this narrative and the rhetorical choices made by the author, students will gain an understanding of the impact writing can have on individual lives and broader, global communities.

    Global Citizenship

    All Global Citizenship students will complete an original research project and paper, which will count for 25% of the final grade in ANTH 2410. The project is linked to the Research Portfolio component from students’ LIS2005: Library & Internet Research Skills course. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will be read and discussed during the first three weeks of ANTH 2410 and some short-answer questions about the book will appear on Exam 1.

    For their semester projects, students will submit a topic idea after reflecting on themes from the book. Some examples of potential ideas include:

    • A specific ethical issue in science (different from the book) and its implications for marginalized populations
    • A health issue and its relationship to constructs of race/ethnicity

    After the topic has been approved, students will select, read, and critically analyze sources related to their topic. Selection, evaluation and peer-review of these sources will be part of their activities in LIS2005. The ANTH 2410 project grade is comprised of several components, including a description of the topic, an annotated bibliography, a paper draft, and the final version of the paper. The selection of sources for the project/paper is based on activities completed in the LIS2005 course and will also be submitted in that course as a Research Portfolio (also in several stages) and will culminate in a final poster presentation at the end of the semester.

    Engaging Ethnography (ANG 5937)

    This graduate seminar explores how researchers and writers conceive of and practice engaged research. While “engagement” is broadly conceived, one area in which we will focus is writing for broader publics. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will serve as an example of anthropological writing that speaks to a popular audience, and students will consider what about this work has propelled it to the New York Times Bestseller list. While not trained as an ethnographer, Rebecca Skloot’s focus in this book on the politics, ethics, and science of the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks for the creation of HeLa cells speaks to the key questions of power relations and applied scientific inquiry in anthropological history.

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