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Book Club Pack: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book Club Pack: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Published by Wellcome Trust
To celebrate the announcement of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2010 shortlist, we've put together book club packs for each of the shortlisted works.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recounts the life of an African American woman diagnosed with cervical cancer, from which she died in 1951. Her cancer cells, kept alive without her knowledge, were sent all over the world for research. Until recently, the identity of the cells was a mystery.

This book tells of the author's hard-won friendship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, and explores the ethical implications of using human tissue for research.
To celebrate the announcement of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2010 shortlist, we've put together book club packs for each of the shortlisted works.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recounts the life of an African American woman diagnosed with cervical cancer, from which she died in 1951. Her cancer cells, kept alive without her knowledge, were sent all over the world for research. Until recently, the identity of the cells was a mystery.

This book tells of the author's hard-won friendship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, and explores the ethical implications of using human tissue for research.

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Published by: Wellcome Trust on Oct 06, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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02/02/2013

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About the author
Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in various publications, including theN e w
York Times Magazine. She specialises in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range o topics,
including goldfsh surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, and ood politics.
She served or eight years on the board o directors o the National Book Critics Circle, where she was a
vice-president and judge or their annual book awards. She has a BS in biological sciences and an MFA
in creative nonfction. Rebecca fnanced her degrees by working in emergency rooms, neurology labs and
veterinary morgues. She has taught in the creative writing programmes at the Universities o Memphis and
Pittsburgh; she’s also taught science journalism in New York University’s graduate Science, Health and
Environmental Reporting Program.
Rebecca lives in Memphis and currently teaches writing workshops and lectures on subjects ranging rom
bioethics to book proposals at conerences and universities nationwide.
www.wellcomebookprize.org
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF
HENRIETTA LACKS
by Rebecca Skloot
PAN
Summary
Henrietta Lacks, a kind, attractive but uneducated Arican American mother o
six, came rom a amily o ormer slaves, and worked in the Southern tobacco
felds like her ancestors, coming home to bake bread or churn butter. Ater
eeling a ‘knot’ in her cervix, she was diagnosed with rapidly spreading cervical cancer, rom which she
died aged 31, in 1951.
Her cancer cells, taken and kept alive in a Petri dish without her knowledge, proved to be the frst cells
that, in culture, were immortal, and could be sent all over the world to help research into polio vaccines,
cancer, viruses, in vitro ertilisation, gene mapping and cloning. Sixty years ater the death o this tiny
woman, her cells are still alive in vast numbers, and would weigh as much as a hundred Empire State
Buildings. But until recently the identity o the originator o the ‘HeLa’ cells was a mystery, and Henrietta
Lacks’s children grew up without knowing that their mother’s remarkable cells had made a major
contribution to medicine.
When Rebecca Skloot tracked down the children and grandchildren who were still alive, she ound they
were so poor they did not even have medical insurance, and had so little understanding o what had
happened to the cells that they eared actual clones o their mother were all over the world and even on
the moon, where cells had indeed been sent. This remarkable book tells the story o the author’s hard-
won riendship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’s youngest daughter, and explains and explores the
legal history and ethical implications o the use o human tissues or research.
How much do we ‘own’ our own cells ater they have let our body? Should we give consent, or be paid,
or their use, or would that make medical research and medical advances impossible? How, i at all,
should Henrietta Lacks’s descendants be compensated?
BOOK CLUB
celebrating
medicine in literature
Questions
Did this book break new ground for you? Had you ever thought about what happens to your tissues
after a hospital procedure?
How well does Rebecca Skloot bring Henrietta Lacks to life? What did you think of the ctional
biography device at the beginning of the book?
What is Rebecca’s attitude to the Lacks family – sympathetic or judgemental?
How well did Rebecca explain the legal and ethical issues about consent, and/or payment, for the use
of our tissues? Having read the book, do you feel that payment or consent are important, or is ownership
of our tissues irrelevant once they leave our bodies?
To what extent do you think racial discrimination was a factor in what happened to the Lacks family?
Do you feel some compensation should be given to Henrietta Lacks’s descendants – either as their due
or as an act of grace?
Passage
Sitting in Lawrence’s living room, Sonny and Bobbette yelled back and orth or nearly an hour about
Hopkins snatching black people. Eventually, Sonny leaned back in his chair and said, “John Hopkin didn’t
give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I
don’t know i they didn’t give us inormation because they was making money out o it, or i they was just
wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all
over the world and shipping them or dollars.”
“Hopkins say they gave them cells away,” Lawrence yelled, “but they made millions! It’s not fair! She’s the
most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science,
why can’t we get health insurance?”
Day had prostate cancer and asbestos-lled lungs. Sonny had a bad heart, and Deborah had arthritis,
osteoporosis, nerve deafness, anxiety, and depression. With all that plus the whole family’s high blood
pressure and diabetes, the Lackses fgured they pretty much supported the pharmaceutical industry, plus
several doctors. But their insurance came and went. Some were covered through Medicare, others on and
o by spouses, but they all went stretches with no coverage or money or treatment.
As the Lacks men talked about Hopkins and insurance, Bobbette snorted in disgust and walked to her
recliner in the living room. “My pressure’s goin up and I’m not gonna die over this, you know?” The whole
thing just wasn’t worth getting riled up over, she said. But she couldn’t help hersel. “Everybody knew
black people were disappearing cause Hopkins was experimenting on them!” she yelled. “I believe a lot of
it was true.”
“Probably so,” Sonny said. “A lot might a been myth too. You never know. But one thing we do know, them
cells about my mother ain’t no myth.”
Day thumped his cane again.
“You know what is a myth?” Bobbette snapped from the recliner. “Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks
donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.” She inhaled a deep breath
to calm herself. “What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey never told the family anything-we
www.wellcomebookprize.org
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in health by supporting the brightest minds.
The Wellcome Trust is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 210183. Its sole trustee is The Wellcome Trust Limited, a company registered in England
and Wales, no. 2711000 (whose registered ofce is at 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK).
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – her debut book – took more than a decade to research and write, and
instantly became a New York Times bestseller. It is now being made into an HBO movie, produced by Oprah
Winfrey and Alan Ball. Visitre b e c c a s k lo o t .c o m or special audio and video eatures, excerpts and more.
Rebecca set up a und, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, supplying unding or the education o Henrietta
Lacks’s descendants.

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'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot is the winner of this year's Wellcome Trust Book Prize www.wellcomebookprize.org

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