The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

For those of you first-year students, I’m hoping that you remember hearing about this book during your orientation session. If you haven’t heard yet, this year’s Common Read book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Before I give you a quick run-down of the book, I do want to encourage everyone to check out each year’s Common Read book because it’s a great opportunity to engage the entire campus. Each year, there are discussions and events centered around the text, and some instructors incorporate it into their curriculum.   Now, back to this year’s book!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book about a woman who had cervical cancer in the 1950s and received treatment at Johns Hopkins University. Her doctors at the time took some of her cancerous cells without her consent. While she received treatment for some time, it was unsuccessful and Henrietta passed away. However, what arose from her unfortunate passing was that the cells that had been removed her body continued to live; this was the first time anyone had encountered human cells continuing to reproduce beyond the body.


As the book progresses, Skloot tells the story of Henrietta, as for many years the media simply identified her as HeLa, for Henrietta Lacks. We get the story of the cells, and how they created a multibillion dollar industry throughout the world and revolutionized medicine; her cells contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and more. Some of you first-year students might remember Grace mentioning that nothing that goes in your mouth at the dentist’s office today hasn’t been touched by these cells. We also learn about her family and the toll that her passing took, and how they were affected by the taking of their mother’s cells; her family didn’t know that they were taking the cells either, and they still struggle today to live as the medical community has gone on to profit from Henrietta.

I think that this story is one that has appealed to a lot of readers. There is the scientific component that explores her cancerous cells and what contributions have been made to science over the years, in addition to discussions about informed consent and the changes laws have seen in the last several decades. We also have the opportunity for a more personal investment as we learn about Skloot’s journey writing the story and her interactions with the family. This is a great read and I definitely recommend it!

rebecca-skloot_originalIf you’d like to learn more about the book, you actually have the chance to meet the author Rebecca Skloot THIS MONDAY, February 25 at 11AM in the UM-Flint Theatre.  The event is free and open to the public and will include a lecture about the book and a book signing. If you’ve got some time that day, you should definitely check it out!

For more information about Rebecca Skloot and the book, check out her website.  You can also head to the UM-Flint website to learn more about the Common Read program and other events that have been hosted on campus already.