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Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Soon to be made into an HBO movie [available 2017] by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story 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’re made of.


In Murray Library:
  • Print Book: RC265.6.L24 S55 2010 
  • AudioBook: RC265.6.L24 S55 2010ab
  • DVD: PN1995.9.B55 I46 2017
  • Streaming video: Click here

Rebecca SklootInterviews with Rebecca Skloot

Articles about Rebecca Skloot

These articles talk about Skloot's life and her writing process. For more articles like these, see the list on Skloot's website.

An article about Skloot's personal history and how she came to write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

An article from the Los Angeles Times that describes how Skloot researched, wrote, and publicized The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

A short profile of Skloot. Includes a photo of Skloot with her father, writer Floyd Skloot.

In this informal interview, Skloot explains some of the decisions that she made as she was writing the book.

Visit Rebecca Skloot's website

Visit the Lacks' family website

More Information on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation:

"There really isn't any department within a university that can't find something specific in the book that relates to it, whether it's law, women's studies — it really does cross all of the different boundaries. And one of the things that I hear over and over from students and from teachers is not that it just touches all the disciplines, but it touches every student personally." -Rebecca Skloot, author

Curriculum Tie-Ins
Biology cell reproduction; tissue harvesting
Math number of cells sold, reproduced, and remaining in storage
Business business of tissue harvesting and economic impact; Intellectual Property Laws 
Psychology impact on the Lacks family and descendants
English storytelling, fact checking, linguistics
Engineering Analysis of machines George Gey invented to grow cells; Current Tissue Culture Technology; Regenerative medicine
History treatment classes and races in 1950s & 1960s; Impact science research of HBCUs in 1950s and 1960s; Nuremberg Code; Tuskegee Syphilis Study; Nuremberg Trials
Social Work treatment of oldest child of Henrietta Lacks and children after her death
Human Subjects

Standards for Ethical Research; Johns Hopkins Hospital staff

via Salisbury University 

Cast of Characters

Immediate Lacks Family

Henrietta Lacks – born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke Virginia in 1920

David “Day” Lacks – Henrietta’s husband and cousin

Lawrence Lacks – Henrietta and Day’s firstborn child

Elsie Lacks (born Lucille Elsie Pleasant) – Henrietta’s second born and eldest daughter. She was institutionalized due to epilepsy and died at age fifteen.

David Jr. “Sonny” Lacks – Henrietta and Day’s third child

Deborah “Dale” Lacks – Henrietta and Day’s fourth child

Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joe Lacks) – Henrietta and Day’s fifth child. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after his birth.

Eliza Lacks Pleasant – Henrietta’s mother. She died when Henrietta was four.

Johnny Pleasant – Henrietta’s father. He left his ten children when their mother died.

Gladys Lacks – Henrietta’s sister who disapproved of Henrietta’s marriage to Day.

Tommy Lacks – Henrietta and Day’s grandfather who raised both of them.


Extended Lacks Family

Albert Lacks – Henrietta’s white great-grandfather. He had five children by a former slave named Maria and left part of the Lacks plantation to them. This section is known as Lacks Town.

Alfred “Cheetah” Carter – Deborah’s first husband. The marriage was abusive and ended in divorce.

Alfred Jr. – Deborah and Cheetah’s firstborn child and little Alfred’s father.

LaTonya – Deborah and Cheetah’s second child. Davon’s mother.

Davon Meade – Deborah’s grandson who often lived with and took care of her.

Reverend James Pullum – Deborah’s second ex-husband, a former steel-mill worker who became a preacher.

Bobette Lacks – Lawrence’s wife. She helped raise Lawrence’s siblings after Henrietta’s death and advocated for them when she discovered they were being abused.

Cliff Garrett – Henrietta’s cousin. As children they worked the tobacco fields together.

“Crazy Joe” Grinnan – Henrietta’s cousin who competed unsuccessfully with Day for her affection

Fred Garret – Henrietta’s cousin who convinced Day and Henrietta to move to Turner Station.

Ethel – Galen’s wife, an abusive caregiver to Henrietta’s three youngest children

Galen – Henrietta’s cousin. He and his wife Ethel moved in with Day after Henrietta’s death to help take care of the children. He ended up abusing Deborah.

Gary Lacks – Gladys son and Deborah’s cousin. A lay preacher, he performed a faith healing on Deborah.

“Little Alfred” – Deborah’s grandson.

Margaret Sturdivant – Henrietta’s cousin and confidante. Henrietta went to her house after radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins.

Sadie Sturdivant – Margaret’s sister, Henrietta’s cousin and confidante. She supported Henrietta during her illness. She and Henrietta sometimes sneaked out to go dancing.


Members of the Medical and Scientific Community

Alexis Carrel – French surgeon and Nobel Prize recipient who claimed to have cultured “immortal” chicken-heart cells.

Chester Southam – cancer researcher who conducted unethical experiments to see whether or not HeLa could “infect” people with cancer.

Christopher Lengauer – cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins who helped develop FISH, a technique used to detect and identify DNA sequences, and who reached out to members of the Lacks family.

Emanuel Mandel – director of medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital (JCDH) who partnered with Southam in unethical experiments.

Dr. George Gey – head of tissue-culture research at Johns Hopkins. He developed the techniques used to grow HeLa cells from Henrietta’s cancer tissue in his lab.

Howard Jones – Henrietta’s gynecologist at Johns Hopkins

Leonard Hayflick – microbiologist who proved that normal cells die when they’ve doubled about fifty times. This is known as the Hayflick limit.

Margaret Gey – George Gey’s wife and research assistant. She was a trained surgical nurse.

Mary Kubicek – George Gey’s lab assistant who cultured HeLa cells for the first time.

Richard Wesley TeLinde – one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country at the time of Henrietta’s diagnosis. His research involved taking tissue samples from Henrietta and other cervical cancer patients at Johns Hopkins.

Roland Pattillo – professor of gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine who was one of George Gey’s only African American students. He organizes a yearly HeLa conference at Morehouse in Henrietta’s honor.

Stanley Gartler – the geneticist who dropped the “HeLa bomb” when he proposed that many of the most commonly used cell cultures had been contaminated by HeLa cells.

Susan Hsu – the post-doctoral student in Victor McKusick’s lab who was assigned to make contact with the Lackses and request samples from them for genetic testing without informed consent.

Victor McKusick – geneticist at Johns Hopkins who conducted research on samples taken from Henrietta’s children without informed consent to learn more about HeLa cells.

Walter Nelson-Rees – the geneticist who tracked and published the names of the cell lines contaminated with HeLa without first warning the researchers he exposed. He became known as a vigilante.


Journalists and Others

Courtney “Mama” Speed – resident of Turner Station and owner of Speed’s Grocery. She organized an effort to build a Henrietta Lacks museum.

John Moore – cancer patient who unsuccessfully sued his doctor and the regents of the University of California over the use of his cells to create the Mo cell line.

Michael Gold – author of a Conspiracy of Cells. He published details from Henrietta’s medical records and autopsy report without permission from the Lacks family.

Michael Rogers – Rolling Stone reporter who wrote an article about the Lacks family in 1976. He was the first journalist to contact the Lackses.

Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield – attempted to sue Johns Hopkins and the Lacks family.

Ted Slavin – a hemophiliac whose doctor told him his cells were valuable. Slavin founded Essential Biologicals, a company that sold his cells, and later cells from other people so individuals could profit form their own biological materials.

From Manchester CC

  1. Start by unraveling the complicated history of Henrietta Lacks's tissue cells. Who did what with the cells, when, where and for what purpose? Who benefited, scientifically, medically, and monetarily?
  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of an African American woman and her family that touches on many big issues: bioethics, racism, poverty, science, faith, and more. What threads stand out to you and why?
  3. What are the specific issues raised in the book—legally and ethically? Talk about the 1980s John Moore case: the appeal court decision and its reversal by the California Supreme Court.
  4. Follow-up to Question #2: Should patient consent be required to store and distribute their tissue for research? Should doctors disclose their financial interests? Would this make any difference in achieving fairness? Or is this not a matter of fairness or an ethical issue to begin with?
  5. What are the legal ramifications regarding payment for tissue samples? Consider the the RAND corporation estimation that 304 million tissue samples, from 178 million are people, are held by labs.
  6. What are the spiritual and religious issues surrounding the living tissue of people who have died? How do Henrietta's descendants deal with her continued "presence" in the world...and even the cosmos (in space)?
  7. Were you bothered when researcher Robert Stevenson tells author Skloot that "scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from"? Is that an ugly outfall of scientific resarch...or is it normal, perhaps necessary, for a scientist to distance him/herself? If "yes" to the last part of that question, what about research on animals...especially for research on cosmetics?
  8. What do you think of the incident in which Henrietta's children "see" their mother in the Johns Hopkins lab? How would you have felt? Would you have sensed a spiritual connection to the life that once created those cells...or is the idea of cells simply too remote to relate to?
  9. Author Rebecca Skloot is a veteran science writer. Did you find it enjoyable to follow her through the ins-and-outs of the laboratory and scientific research? Or was this a little too "petri-dishish" for you?
  10. Skloot had to make a lot of choices about how she recounted Henrietta’s story and how she structured the book. What do we know about her process from the foreword and endnotes? How does her narrative reconstruction of Henrietta’s life impact the story? How do you feel about the reconstruction?
  11. Making health care affordable to all Americans has been a recent political focus. What does the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family add to this discussion?
  12. Do you think the family is owed money for the sale of the HeLa cells? Do you agree with their feeling that they should be compensated? 
  13. Was the presence of the author in the book disruptive or appropriate?
  14. What did you learn from reading The Immortal Life? What surprised you the most? What disturbed you the most?
  15. Race and racism are woven throughout the book, both in the story presented and in the process of the research for the book. Skloot was yet another white person asking the Lacks family about Henrietta.
  16. How do you feel about a white woman creating the narrative of this story? How did her race help or hinder Skloot in the writing and researching of the book?
  17. The author notes social inequities both explicitly and implicitly. What parts of Henrietta’s story might be different if she had been white? What might have been different if she had been middle or uppermiddle class?
  18. What role did the deferential attitude toward doctors in the early 20th century play in the interaction between Henrietta and her family and Johns Hopkins? How has that attitude toward doctors changed over the decades? Do patients’ socioeconomic differences affect the relationship today?
  19. Consider both the taking of the cell sample without her knowledge, let alone consent... and the questions it is raising 60 years later when society is more open about racial injustice?
  20. Author Rebecca Skloot is a veteran science writer. Did you find it enjoyable to follow her through the ins-and-outs of the laboratory and scientific research? Or was this a little too "petri-dishish" for you?

via Metropolitan Community College

Visit the Frequently Asked Questions page of this site for answers to questions commonly raised by students and teachers.

APA, 7th edition

Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers.

MLA, 8th edition

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, 2010.

Chicago, 17th edition

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

Created using ISBN-10 : 9781400052189


When we speak of citing, two things are meant.

  • Citing within the text of a paper, either by using parenthetical references, or footnotes.
  • Providing complete bibliographic information for your sources in a bibliography (also known as a Works Cited page or Reference List).

Paraphrasing and Summarizing

In writing papers, you will often want to use exact quotes, especially when you cannot improve upon an author's original way of stating an idea. In those instances, of course, you should use the exact quotation, correctly citing it as the work of someone else.

But a paper cannot be written by simply stringing together exact quotations from a number of authors. More often than not, in writing you will do more stating the ideas of others in your own words, that is you will paraphrase or summarize those ideas of other people.

Paraphrases and summaries of other people's ideas must also be cited, or you will be charged with plagiarism. Plagiarism is not just the using of other people's exact words without giving them credit, but also using their unique ideas without citing them as the source. To see a PDF of it, click on the link below.

Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Quoting

Common Knowledge: The Things That Don't Have to be Cited

Surprisingly, not everything has to be cited. For example, a statement like "George Washington is known as the 'Father of His Country'" would not need to be cited because this is a general idea in the culture that most people are aware of. These sorts of information are called "common knowledge."

Another way to express this is, if three to five reference works all say the same thing about a topic, then that idea is common knowledge. It is not the intellectual property of any one individual, and, therefore, does not need to be cited. If you ever have questions on whether a statement is common knowledge, Chat with a Librarian or talk to your professor.

Adapted from the Duquesne Libguides