The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

by Amy Jurskis, Tri-cities High School, East Point, Georgia

Like many teachers, I grew up reading, and to this day I attribute most of my knowledge to stories I read in books. Perhaps more than any other pedagogical tool, narratives allow students to connect to, organize, and make sense of information—which is why I was thrilled to tune into Fresh Air on NPR one afternoon and discover Rebecca Skloot’s amazing book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Skloot’s book is essentially three narratives, each with unique applications to the disciplines of language arts, history, and science. First there is the story of the author’s own odyssey—sparked by a casual comment made by a biology instructor—to discover the woman behind the HeLa cells. Skloot’s story is both a riveting work of investigative journalism and a deeply moving memoir, as her search for answers ultimately results in the development of a life-changing friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The second narrative is the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, and it provides a haunting glimpse into life in the racially segregated and impoverished American south. The final narrative is the story of the HeLa cells, from the scientist who successfully created the cell line, to the uses of HeLa in medical and scientific research, to the industries and medical ethics reforms that have resulted from issues surrounding the use of HeLa. These three narratives are masterfully woven together, and the result is a book that blends elements of science, history, investigative journalism, and memoir in a way that is gripping and unforgettable. 

From an educator’s perspective, the book is a goldmine. The incorporation of scientific and historical narratives gives numerous possibilities for multi-disciplinary projects and discussion activities. Most of us face state-mandated and high-stakes writing assessments that focus on rhetoric and persuasion, and Skloot’s book touches on many issues that provide inspiration for relevant and rigorous persuasive prompts. There is a very clear justification for incorporating the text into AP biology or AP Lang syllabi, but I think the potential value of this text in the curriculum is far wider than simply its use in upper-level classes.

I teach in a very large Title I school in southwest Atlanta, and in addition to recommending the book as school-wide summer reading and assigning it to our AP students, I am incorporating The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks into my ninth grade classes this fall. A few weeks ago, my students were finishing a unit on Homer, and we were discussing Achilles’ famous choice between living a long life in obscurity or fighting and dying in the Trojan War in order to gain eternal fame. I brought up the story of Henrietta Lacks and my students were riveted. I concluded by saying, “Henrietta Lacks literally has a part of her that is immortal, and her HeLa cells are famous; yet she was buried in an unmarked grave, and, for decades, most people did not even know her name.” One of my 15-year-old male students—a textbook example of a “reluctant reader”—responded, “Until now.”

Henrietta’s story is one that they will remember. Using The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the classroom will deepen your students’ understanding of non-fiction, science, medicine, and history—but more than that, it will prepare them to engage thoughtfully with the profound moral and ethical dilemmas posed by emergent technologies and the world we share.