Common Read: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - LSC-Kingwood

Book cover for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Orange, with a picture of a smiling woman in a suit.The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks combines the true story of a poor black family in the mid- twentieth century and the course of scientific discovery, as cellular technology unfolds in the laboratories.  The stories are told in a very personal way, exploring the personalities of the people involved.  As you read the book, you will come up with many questions.  Choose one of them to explore as you write your research paper.

About the Author:

Rebecca Skloot (1972 - ) is a narrative science writer with training in veterinary sciences, biological sciences and creative writing.  She comes from an imaginative family; her father is a poet and novelist, her mother is a knitting designer, and her stepmother, a painter. While working on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot wrote over 200 other articles, helping her to make a living and to establish her credentials during her ten years of research.  She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Memphis and New York University and she currently lives in Chicago. 

Skloot approaches life with wit, humor and a lot of energy.  She often writes using a treadmill desk and has a "step writing" competition with other writers.

LSC-Kingwood Common Read   See also: LSC-Kingwood Common Read campus page


  • Henrietta Lacks – A beautiful, gregarious black woman who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31
  • David “Day” Lacks – Her close relation and husband, first a field hand in his grandfather’s tobacco fields and later a steel worker in Baltimore
  • Tommy Lacks – Tobacco farmer, the grandfather who raised both Henrietta and Day
  • Ethel – A long-time rival of Henrietta, who, with her husband, Galen, moved in with Day after Henrietta’s death to help raise their three younger children. 
  • Lawrence Lacks – Henrietta & Day’s eldest son, who took his siblings in when he realized they were being abused by Ethel
  • Elsie Lacks – Henrietta & Day’s older daughter, an epileptic who was incapable of speech. She died in a mental institution at age 15.
  • Sonny Lacks – Henrietta & Day’s second son, who was four when Henrietta passed away.  The family spokesperson.
  • Deborah “Dale” Lacks – Henrietta & Day’s daughter, who was two when Henrietta passed away.  Her desire to “know” her mother and sister forms much of the second half of the book.
  • Joe “Zakariyya” Lacks – The baby of the family, he was 4½ months old when Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer.  He has anger issues, and spent some time in prison where he converted to Islam and changed his name to Zakariyya.
  • Bobette Lacks – Lawrence's wife, who realized his siblings were being abused and insisted that Lawrence take them in.
  • Dr. George Gey – Researcher whose work led to the development of the HeLa cell line.
  • Margaret Gey – George’s wife and assistant.
  • Mary Kubicek – George’s lab assistant, who actually grew the first HeLa cells.

Suggested Topics

There are many possibilities for writing a paper based on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Some suggested topics:

HeLa cells grown in tissue culture and stained with antibody to actin (green) , vimentin (red) and DNA (blue). Image courtesy of EnCor Biotechnology Inc.

 Social Sciences: Family dynamics | racism | civil rights movement | death | immortality | cultural differences between 1950’s and now | segregation | Johns Hopkins (the person or the hospital) | religion and faith | researching your family history | Jim Crow era | Tuskegee Study | faith healing | eugenics | child abuse | Nuremburg Code | domestic violence | “night doctors” | ownership of one’s cells | prison ministry | mental institutions | Henrietta Lacks Foundation

Science: cell culture | medical research | death | development of the polio vaccine | gene sequencing | biobank | inbreeding | cancer | cervical cancer | HeLa cells | cloning | syphilis | sexually transmitted disease | eugenics | gene mapping | human papilloma virus (HPV) | culture media | cross-species | deafness | stem cell research | donor compensation | scientific progress | accountability |  

Current Issues: informed consent | health insurance availability | human cell ownership | Moore v. Regents of California (1990) | privacy | bioethics | human vs. animal research | cloning | HPV vaccinations | vaccination safety | welfare of the vulnerable | privacy |

Literature: Symbolism  (The picture of HeLa cells | Henrietta’s grave site | storm | Deborah's messages to Skoot | the home-house) |  character development | setting | writing structure | compare & contrast with another book (such as Fried Green Tomatoes or The Hours)



can be checked out and downloaded to your computer, tablet or smart phone.  They cover many of the same topics as books, including Nuremberg, cell culture, domestic violence and sexually transmitted disease.

Circulating Books

can be checked out.  Locate using the Library Catalog.

Search the Library Catalog
 Keyword Anywhere:

Reference Books

will help you understand your topic and give you leads on how to search.  While you read the articles for an overview, keep your eyes open for history and background, keywords and alternative ideas.

REF BF31 .E52  Encyclopedia of Psychology
Includes Religion & Psychotherapy (faith healing), Ethnic & Racial Identity, Death & Dying, Child Abuse.
REF BL31 .E46  Encyclopedia of Religion
Articles on healing and Islam.
REF BJ63 .E54  Ethics.
Includes faith healers, family, stem cell research, incest, institutionalization (mental hospitals), and genetic testing.
REF D840 .D39  Day by Day: The Fifties.
Read about the development of the polio vaccine, civil rights, and race riots, day by day as they unfolded.
REF E184 .A1 E773  Encyclopedia of Racism in the United States
Includes Tuskegee Study and Jim Crow.
REF E184.6 .M55  Milestone Documents in African American History.
Includes the Tuskegee Study, Jim Crow.  Use the index.
REF QH332 E52  Encyclopedia of Bioethics.
Covers many possible topics, including information disclosure and informed consent, institutionalization (mental hospitals)
REF QH427 .E53  Encyclopedia of Genetics.
Includes eugenics, consanguinity & genetic disease (inbreeding), cell division, cell culture
REF RC200.1 .M66  Encyclopedia of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and HPV.
REF RC263.C294  Cancer Sourcebook. Health Reference Series.
          Signs, symptoms, statistics.  Includes cervical cancer.
Online medical reference database. Use the 14-digit barcode from your LSCS ID to login from off-campus.


The databases most appropriate for your research will depend on the topic you choose.  If you need help deciding where or how to search, ask a librarian.

Project Muse - Your best source for a literary approach to the book, although you will still have to search creatively. Also includes social sciences.

Films on Demand -The video, Cancer Research: The Way of All Flesh, examines HeLa Cells.  This is also a valuable source for many of the other topics, including the Nuremberg code, eugenics, and HPV.

Legal Collection - Useful for legal topics, including medical ethics & research subjects, Moore v. Regents of California, and the Nuremberg Code.

Medline - Medical research, including HeLa cells, cervical cancer, and gene sequencing.  Be sure to refine your results to "linked full text."

CINAHL Plus - Nursing database, good for medical issues, including spiritual healing, chromosome mapping, and HVP vaccine.  The articles in this database, like Medline, are quite technical.

Health Source Consumer - More accessible medical articles, including Polio (poliomyelitis), biobanks (tissue banks), and deafness.

Health Reference Center Academic - Medical issues more accessible to the lay person.

MasterFILE Premier - Good database for an argumentative paper.  Includes cloning, vaccination safety, and donation of organs - economic aspects

MAS Ultra - Life spans, nineteen fifties, prison ministry, and other sociological topics.

Opposing Viewpoints - Good source for an argumentative paper.  Includes Henrietta Lacks, cloning, bioethics.

Academic Search Complete - This database is useful for all topics.  Includes racism in medicine, biobanks, and death attitudes, among many more.

JSTOR - Particularly good for history, such as Jim Crow, Moore v. Regents of California, and the Tuskegee study.

Web Sites

Many websites are devoted to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  These are some that we have found helpful:

Reader’s Guide from the Rebecca Skloot’s website

Open Learning Commons - Chapter summaries and study questions.

Lacks family website - Put a personal face on the Lacks family.  Lecture appearances and information about the Henrietta Lacks Foundation

Bluford Library LibGuide -  Includes a scientific timeline, videos and discussion about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

How I Write - Interview with Rebecca Skloot, from The Daily Beast.

Getting Help with Your Assignment

Page by Sue Goodwin 7/2013

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