PCC Reads 2012 - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Is it ethical to use human cells for medical research without a patient's consent? Read this engaging and true story that addresses both the scientific and human sides of this question.

See: PCC Reads Resources for library materials related to this topic.

By Jane Rognlie, Librarian Faculty

Now is an ideal time to explore the new PCC Reads website to learn more about this year's PCC Reads book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. There you will find information sources relevant to the book's diverse themes, curriculum and assignment ideas, and a list of upcoming related events, including Rebecca Skloot's visit to PCC in May. Coming soon to this website is a blog to which faculty, students, and staff can contribute.

Why am I elated that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is this year's PCC Reads choice?

The book is elegantly written. It reads like a novel, and yet it combines biography, science, medicine, history, and ethics with interwoven narratives. It tells the riveting story of a poor, young African American woman who got cervical cancer and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment. Without her knowledge, a piece of her tumor was harvested and sent down the hall to scientists who were trying to grow tissues in culture. Henrietta died in 1951, leaving behind her husband and five children. Her cells survived and from them the first immortal human cell line, HeLa, was created. Over the past 60 years the Hela cell line has helped make many medical advancements possible, including the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.

Rebecca Skloot is a former PCC student. She first found out about Henrietta Lacks in a PCC biology class in the 1980s. Her instructor, Donald Defler, wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board one day, as he was explaining HeLa cells and their contribution to science. Skloot was fascinated and after class she approached Defler with questions about Henrietta Lacks. Who was she, did her family know about the cells, what did her race have to do with the cells being alive? Defler replied that all that was known about Henrietta Lacks was her name and race. He suggested that Skloot do some research and write it up for extra credit. When Skloot sent Defler an advance copy of her book, she wrote, "Here's my extra credit summary, Mr. Defler…it's a few decades late, but I have a good excuse: the information was really hard to find …"

I love the serendipity of how a brief mention of Henrietta Lacks in a basic biology class at PCC sparked a passion in 16-year old Skloot that started her on a path that ended in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Donald Defler never knew the powerful impact he had on Rebecca until years later. As we celebrate PCC's 50th anniversary this year, I think it is a good time to reflect on the enormous potential we have to change students' lives.

I hope you are planning to integrate Henrietta Lacks' remarkable story into your classes during winter or spring term. The book's interdisciplinary themes give the PCC community rich opportunities to have meaningful conversations about complex issues concerning science, medicine, race, ethics, and the law. The science of cells, racism, abuses in medical care, creative nonfiction writing, who gets to tell whose stories, women in science, informed consent, and ownership rights are some of the topics your students might want to research.

If you haven't already read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, check out a copy soon from the PCC Library. And, when you and your students need to find credible information sources relevant to the book's themes, remember that you can consult with your campus librarians – in person, by phone, or via chat or email.

Contact us at any time. We are here and eager to help!